When she was 9 years old, Saskia Popescu read Richard Preston’s 1995 nonfiction thriller The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story on a family vacation. Much of it went over her head, but young Saskia was fascinated by the story of viral hemorrhagic fevers, Level 4 biocontainment areas, and Ebola virus-infected monkeys in suburban Northern Virginia.
She was so taken with the idea of controlling diseases, for Halloween that year she dressed as a pathologist, complete with hazmat suit.
These days the hazmat suit isn’t a costume but a part of her occupation: Popescu is a real-life epidemiologist, working to control infections in Phoenix, Arizona, pediatric hospitals. For now, the career is on hold as Popescu researches her biodefense PhD dissertation in Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where she’s also a graduate research assistant. Last year she was named a fellow in the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative by the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University.
It was her strong interest in both the medical side of the field and the policy side that drew her to Mason’s Biodefense Program. “The program brings it all together to understand the complexities of health security,” she says. “We have experts from both fields coming to the classroom who can speak to all aspects, which is huge.”
Once her studies are completed, Popescu says she would like to find an academic position in a working medical institute. “That way I could teach, which I love, and still stay involved in infection control at the medical center, which is the only way to understand the complexities of the field.”
And as for Preston’s life-changing book, she says, “When you look back on it you can see it’s the most scientifically inaccurate drama ever created. But at the time it was inspiring for a young mind.”