Tracking With Traxler

CDC epidemiologist Rita Traxler ’04 charts disease progression in order to stem it.

The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. In the past, the same might have been said for the intentions of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point alumna Rita Traxler.

Take Traxler’s aspirations of running college track. In fact, her desire to run was a deciding factor in her choice of UWSP as her undergraduate alma mater. While she was on the outdoor track team for one year, a traumatic injury forced her to reassess her priorities.

Then there was her short-lived choice to focus on resource management as a major. A tumble into the waters of a creek during her first lab class convinced her that maybe that wasn’t the right field for her after all.

Today, as an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control outside Atlanta, Traxler is still planning and plotting. Yet instead of guiding her academic and athletic life, her efforts now are geared toward safeguarding the health and safety of the general public worldwide. Coincidentally, mice (cows/chickens/etc.) and men figure into her work, which focuses on diseases that can be spread from animals to humans. And for the record, Traxler has seen to it that going awry is no longer an option.

Traxler’s specialties at the CDC include zoonoses (animal-to-human infectious disease transmission) and rare bacterial diseases. She also has been involved in efforts to prepare for and defend against bioterrorism attacks.

“For many years, I have worked on surveillance,” she says, “which is essentially counting the number of cases of a disease in the United States each year through collaboration with public health officials in each state or territory.”

Her work also has been international in scope. In 2015, Traxler and a team from the CDC assisted the government of Ghana with pinpointing areas of the country that were susceptible to anthrax outbreaks. Using existing livestock, climate and soil/vegetative data, the team created a model that allowed officials to vaccinate livestock in high-risk regions against anthrax.

“Predictive mapping enables a more cost-effective approach to disease control in livestock, which in turn prevents disease in humans,” she says.

Becoming a scientist had long been in the cards for Traxler. “I’ve always loved science,” she says. “Chemistry was my favorite class in high school.”

Choosing a practical application for her passion, however, was quite another matter. As a teenager, after attending a training program at the sustainability-focused Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin, she leaned heavily toward pursuing environmental work. Then she thought she might combine her academic interests with her desire to run track and explore exercise science.

Even after enrolling at UWSP—and nixing resource management after her impromptu dip in the creek—Traxler had a tough time nailing down a major. As she recalls, she kind of “landed in biology” by default. It turned out to be a most happy coincidence.

“Biology folks were my people,” she says. “I was pre-PT for a while, then pre-med. It was a pretty ignorant choice, but a health promotion professor suggested public health as [the] next step after graduation. I looked into it, it sounded like a good idea and I applied to some graduate programs. It was serendipitous.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry and a concentration in health promotion, Traxler landed an internship with the health and wellness-focused Cooper Institute in Dallas, where she was put in charge of planning “a tiny inter-rater reliability study.” She credits Dr. Tom Wetter, with whom she had conducted an exercise study at UWSP, with setting the stage for her obtaining the internship. According to Traxler, her time in Texas provided a potent trifecta of life experiences.

“I learned good research skills, gained experience and met my husband!”

Hired by the institute after the internship had ended, Traxler stayed on there until she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where she earned her master’s in health science. Shortly after receiving her master’s, she landed a job as a public health specialist with the CDC, later securing her current title of epidemiologist. Currently, she is working toward her doctorat in public health from Georgia State University.

Traxler notes that, through graduate school and working at the CDC, she has come into contact with many people who attended “elite undergraduate institutions” that, because of their high level of funding, could offer specific programs and courses that had not been available at UWSP while she was an undergrad. She’s excited that the university has opened the new Chemistry Biology Building, packed with cutting-edge equipment and expanded classroom and lab space that will help budding Pointer scientists compete at an even higher level with students from other schools.

Looking back, however, and considering where she is now, Traxler understands that such alleged disparities in education are pretty much inconsequential anyway.

“I felt at times that I was at a disadvantage and had to work harder than those students,” she says of her “elite” colleagues, “although, in hindsight, I think that was a false perception. … I’m still here, so UWSP grads are just as competitive.”