Flu Fighter: Beth Neuhaus

Meet flu fighter Dr. Beth Neuhaus, associate director of informatics in CDC’s Influenza Division. Dr. Neuhaus provides tireless and innovative leadership for a variety of informatics and advanced computer technology projects. She oversees how laboratory data from thousands of flu virus specimens are managed, shared and used to give us deeper insight into flu. Dr. Neuhaus and her team take the large amounts of detailed data collected in CDC’s laboratories and translate it into usable information that informs decisions on protecting the public’s health from the spread of seasonal and novel influenza viruses.

Influenza viruses are rapidly changing. Understanding these changes and the threat of emerging and changing viruses requires complicated, multistep laboratory work. CDC must keep up with the latest technological developments in our field in order to provide the most accurate and timely information on flu. To gather this accurate and timely flu information, Dr. Neuhaus and her team established the collaborative transfer of technology and methods to the state public health laboratory system. In the past three years, her team has designed and implemented a laboratory and informatics system that performs year-round domestic surveillance to quickly and efficiently obtain detailed genetic information about circulating influenza viruses.

Name: Beth Neuhaus, PhD

Title: Associate Director of Informatics, Influenza Division

Location: Atlanta, GA

  1. What role do you play in fighting flu?
    I manage the Influenza Division’s Bioinformatics and Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) teams and provide oversight for other division IT projects.  I am also involved in several enterprise IT initiatives at CDC.
    On a daily basis, we receive and produce very detailed, high-quality laboratory data. We do this by analyzing influenza virus strains at a molecular level, and that means we have layers of data for each virus specimen we receive. When I think about how far we’ve come with understanding flu viruses, I like to use the analogy of a book: before we used to create one or two sentences for each flu virus strain we analyzed, so it might take a month to complete a small chapter.  Our new methods allow us to create eight long paragraphs per flu virus strain.  Because we now analyze many virus strains at the same time, we can complete a whole book in a single day!  By the end of a season, we have created enough data to fill hundreds of books. We take a big data approach to analyzing large, complex flu data sets, which enables us to see a more precise molecular view of different flu viruses within the contexts of time, location and even cohort.  Being able to organize, compare and analyze our data in order to create information, what we call informatics, means we are able to characterize flu viruses quickly,  inform how much the virus has changed in a short period of time, and determine if rapid changes are of concern to the public’s health and well-being.  Without IT and informatics, it would be impossible for us to analyze our molecular data and it is vital for future progress.
  2. What is the most rewarding part of your work?
    The most gratifying part of my work is having the privilege to work with brilliant, innovative and dedicated people. I am also proud of the growth and success of our informatics initiatives. We are pioneering new projects to improve how we gather and analyze flu data. We know that flu is serious and a new flu pandemic is bound to happen. The surveillance processes and systems ensure that we have the capacity and sustainability to be ready to respond with better and faster data than we have ever had before.
  3. What is the most difficult part of your role in flu prevention?
    Keeping up with the rapidly changing technology can be challenging – but it’s a good challenge! There is always newer, faster technology that provides higher quality data. Therefore, we have to ensure our informatics systems are flexible. I am constantly thinking ahead to determine what new technology we will need so we can provide the latest information.
    Influenza viruses are rapidly changing, depending on where they are and what environment they are exposed to. Understanding these changes in flu viruses and the threat of emerging and changing viruses requires complicated, multistep lab work. Our work demands we be on top of the latest technological developments in our field in order to provide the most accurate and timely information on flu.
  4. How serious is flu? What should people know about the risk of flu?
    The risk of flu is always there. Your personal risk of flu can depend on a lot: where you were exposed, your age, or health status.  The impact and threat of flu viruses are also constantly evolving. Rapid changes in the virus and the continued threat of pandemic flu reminds us just how serious flu can be.
  5. What would you say to those who are hesitant to get the flu shot?
    I tell folks “yes, you should get the flu shot.” Some of the molecular changes of flu viruses can be surprising, but the flu vaccine still is the best tool we have available to prevent flu. Protect yourself and reduce the risk of spreading flu at school or work. If you do become ill, the level of immunity you acquired from the flu vaccine can also lessen the severity of your illness.