Meet a Mustang: Mariah Gesink '13
Some people are lucky enough to find their calling early in life. Mariah Gesink ‘13, née Stauffer, is one of those people. Even before she learned what an epidemiologist was, she knew that she wanted to make her life about preventing the spread of infectious diseases.
“As crazy as this sounds, my love for epidemiology started when I was a little girl,” recalls Mariah. She remembers staying home sick from school in elementary school and watching the film “Outbreak” with her dad (don’t worry - she says he bleeped out all of the bad words). She was intrigued by the movie and thought it would be fun to save the world from an infectious disease. Her dream job at age six was to be a jet-flying wedding dress-designing doctor. She remained convinced that going to medical school and becoming a doctor was the path to her dream job - minus the designing wedding dresses and becoming a jet pilot part - until she came to Morningside and met a professor who introduced her to her real passion: epidemiology.
At Morningside, Mariah majored in biology and chemistry and minored in religious studies. She knew she wanted to go to a smaller school after visiting the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and she says it was love at first sight after visiting Morningside. Not only did Morningside offer smaller class sizes, but she would also be able to be on the track team. “The campus is beautiful, the professors are wonderful, and I felt like the track team was one giant family,” she says. “I knew all of this on my first visit.”
After graduating from Morningside, Mariah attended graduate school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health to earn her Master of Public Health in Epidemiology. She is now an Infection Prevention Epidemiologist at CHI Health Lakeside in her hometown of Omaha, Neb. As an epidemiologist working in a hospital, it’s her responsibility to develop infection control plans to protect patients and healthcare workers from infectious diseases. To do this, she identifies the risks of acquiring different types of infections and works to eliminate or control the risks. If an outbreak occurs, Mariah then determines the source of the infection and implements prevention and control measures to mitigate and stop the outbreak. In addition to this, she is also in charge of developing isolation policies for patients with infectious diseases, educating healthcare workers about the principles of infection control, monitoring the use of antibiotics and the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the hospital, developing policies to protect patients from hospital-acquired infections, and collecting data points for statistical summaries from microbiology reports like those compiled for influenza seasons and COVID-19.
“I wish people knew how much is done behind the scenes,” says Mariah. “When people think about healthcare, they usually think of the nurses and physicians who take care of them. But there’s a robust team made of many different disciplines that are needed to get the work done. One of the disciplines is Infection Prevention, which is what my position falls under as a hospital epidemiologist.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mariah’s work has become even more important not only to the staff at her hospital but to friends and family who have turned to her for insight during this confusing time. While SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has only been known to the world for a few months, things have changed drastically and quickly. She recommends that people follow the advice of the doctors and scientists on the frontline and validate information before sharing it.
From dreaming of helping stop the spread of infectious diseases as a little girl to doing exactly that as a hospital epidemiologist today, Mariah’s journey highlights the importance of not only following your dreams but finding a community that supports you every step of the way. Looking back at her time at Morningside, Mariah noted some of the influential professors, staff, and friends - including her now-husband, Brian Gesink ‘11 - that made her experience special. From President Reynders who she says was a great supporter and always encouraged her to chase her dreams, to coach Dave Nash who helped create the family environment that so many people love about the track and cross country team, and Bruce Forbes who convinced her to minor in religious studies after one class, she felt like the Morningside community really cared about her growth and achievements. Her advice for students is to really dig in and make the most of their experience at Morningside.
“You only get four years to develop relationships with your teammates, professors, staff, and friends. Try to connect with a mentor, there are a lot of Morningside alumni doing great things in all sorts of different fields in biology, medicine, healthcare, and public health,” she says. “And shoot for the stars. There is literally no dream too big if you’re willing to put in the work.”