A Conversation with Stic Harris
Stic Harris, DVM, MPH, has been the director of FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network (CORE) since August 2017. He is responsible for the agency’s surveillance, response, and post-response activities associated with outbreaks of illnesses caused by food, dietary supplements, and cosmetics.
In many ways, Dr. Harris defies the stereotype of a government official, with professional incarnations that include college athlete, professional hockey player, epidemiologist, veterinarian, congressional fellow, and biodefense expert. He came to FDA from the Department of Defense (DOD), where he had established himself as an expert in global outbreak response.
With six months at the helm of CORE, Dr. Harris shares some insights on everything from his uncommon first name to his passion for public health and what lies ahead for CORE.
Q. Stic, you have quite an interesting name. Is there a story behind it?
Stic isn’t my “real” first name. I was given the nickname while trying out for the hockey team during my freshman year at the University of Michigan. On the first day as a goaltender I was so nervous I hit everything that moved with my stick – including my own teammates. After having enough of getting hit, a larger and older teammate skated up to me and said “I don’t know what your name is, but I’m going to call you ‘stick,’ and if you hit me again I’m going to drop you.” From that day forward I had a new name.
Q: Can you tell me more about your background?
I’ve got something of a nomadic past. I started college with Michigan’s hockey team, but at the end of freshman year, I was in a very bad car accident. The doctors told me that I might not walk again, but after a summer of physical therapy, I returned to school and joined the track program.
I’ve always had a lot of different interests and they’ve shaped both my personal and professional life. As I finished my undergraduate degree, majoring in microbiology and classical archeology, I was offered a chance to play professional hockey. After three years of chasing that dream, I decided it was time to change course and pursue a different passion – public health. I studied for my master’s degree in molecular epidemiology and public health genetics.
From there I moved to Austin to work for the Texas Department of Health and then relocated to Georgia to work for the state health department there. At the state level, I worked on such issues as lead poisoning, prion diseases, arthritis, bioterrorism, maternal and child health, and cancer.
When I was 35, I changed course again, enrolling in veterinary school at the University of Georgia. I had always expected to return to medical school but over the years my feelings on what type of doctor I want to be had changed. A supervisor in Georgia planted the seed of veterinary school and I worked to make it happen. While there, I interned at USDA (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), working on infectious animal diseases, foodborne diseases, and outbreaks.
After that, I moved to Washington D.C. and worked for a year as a Congressional Fellow. I didn’t know at the time that what I learned there would help lay the groundwork for my role at FDA. One of the issues I worked on was the then proposed new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which you know is a major priority for FDA.
Q: You came to FDA as a biodefense expert. How did that happen?
I had worked on bioterrorism preparedness issues at the state health departments in Texas and Georgia. After finishing my year with the Senate, I joined the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs as a veterinary medical officer. We worked with other federal agencies on biodefense and biosecurity issues affecting human, animal, plant, and environmental health. I was there for two years before being approached by DOD’s Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center to lead its new Alert and Response Operations Team, created to monitor global disease outbreaks. Our office quickly turned into a multidisciplinary team tracking and reporting on events across the globe.
Q: What drew you to FDA and CORE?
My true passion lies in protecting public health. I was actually here (at FDA) briefing CORE on global outbreaks that DOD was monitoring and an old colleague informed me that FDA was looking for a new director for CORE. I did some investigation into CORE and the position and the more I researched and talked to people, the more it seemed like a great fit for me.
Q: How would you describe your management style?
I like a team approach, which works well here because CORE knows a thing or two about teamwork. We are divided into three main teams: Signals & Surveillance uses databases, adverse event reports to FDA, news reports, sampling information, and other sources to identify potential outbreaks. The Response team is divided into three subgroups that lead traceback investigations during an outbreak. The teams work with FDA field offices to arrange inspections, sampling, and collection of records while coordinating with other federal, state, and local agencies. During response to outbreaks, the Response teams also work closely with compliance and enforcement staff in both CFSAN and the field offices to ensure product recalls and other regulatory actions are conducted as warranted to protect the public. And our Post Response team incorporates lessons learned from outbreaks to prevent future outbreaks through policy advice and guidance, and through suggesting future sampling or research assignments. They also use the lessons learned to propose changes to improve the response activities.
One of the best parts about this team of teams is their interaction. The teams work together to anticipate, address, and learn from outbreaks. As outbreaks move from Signals & Surveillance to a Response team and then on to the Post Response team, team members are already aware because they’ve been involved from the start. That inclusiveness makes the transitions much more straightforward.
Q: What do you see as CORE’s greatest strength?
The people, easily. We have a tremendous group of people who continue to amaze and impress me every day with their breadth of knowledge and dedication to our mission. The staff works late nights, weekends, and holidays without giving it a second thought because everyone recognizes the importance of what we do in protecting the public’s health. I feel very privileged to work with and lead such a knowledgeable and dedicated group of people.
Q: What is the biggest challenge?
To me the biggest challenge is a personal one – my limited knowledge of FDA. While I have a lot of experience with surveillance, response, public health, and working across groups and agencies, I’ve never worked for a regulatory agency before. There’s so much to learn and so many different considerations. So I’m working hard to drink from that fire hose and learn as much as possible so I don’t let CORE down.
Q: How do you see CORE evolving?
We’re an organization that has “coordinated” in our name. As part of that you have to continually become better at communications. We coordinate with groups within FDA and across other agencies. That gives you greater awareness of what’s going on in the world and how people think. I think we want to expand that. Instead of relying on the common response of, “We can’t talk about that,” we need to evaluate whether and when we can share information with our partners and stakeholders. We don’t always have to do what’s always been done – we can look at other ways. Partnerships and collaboration is what is going to help everyone move forward in protecting public health.
One of the reasons I was hired is because I’ve worked a lot on bridging gaps across academia, industry, and the state and federal government; a skillset that is particularly valuable to an organization so reliant on communication. We’re all wanting the same end result – an end to foodborne outbreaks, even though we may be going about it differently. We need to build off that common ground. For us, sharing the information we learn and working collaboratively can help prevent future problems from arising.
Q: What is the greatest danger in food safety?
This answer may seem in the weeds but it’s important. FDA and CDC are both concerned about the increasing use by doctors and clinical laboratories of culture-independent diagnostic tests (CIDT) and how this will affect foodborne outbreak investigations in the future. These tests are great since they quickly give you a simple yes or no on the presence of a pathogen without having to culture the bacteria in the lab. But without actually growing and typing the pathogen you lose out on a huge part of how we investigate outbreaks. If CDC is unable to get a sample because they don’t have the actual culture of the organism, it becomes difficult for us to use the PFGE (pulsed-field gel electrophoresis) or WGS (whole genome sequencing) in identifying related samples. PFGE and WGS look at the DNA fingerprint left behind by a pathogen, which can be linked to the clinical samples from people. That’s going to make things much harder. Everyone focuses on how WGS will allow us to see more and identify more, but if more CIDT continues, it’s going to be a challenge that has to be overcome.
More broadly, I continue to believe the biggest danger to our food supply is the global reach of our food sources. More than half of our fruit and 80 percent of our seafood are imported. FSMA has given us tools to help in this arena, which augment the work we do with other countries on food safety, but the global scale of our food supply adds complexity.
Q: Does FSMA have an impact on your work?
Ironically, I was able to work in the FSMA landscape during its creation while I was working on Capitol Hill. I remember at that time I saw it as a creation of laws and policy that we were ironing out and negotiating. We didn’t envision how this work would affect the individual because we were focused on creating an overhaul of the entire food safety system. Now I get to see how FSMA has played out and is being implemented by the people actually doing the work. I remember talking to the FDA liaison to the Senate in 2009 and I never considered the actual work being done by the individuals. Now it’s much more seeing how this affects people’s jobs and seeing people who are so dedicated to keeping the nation’s food supply safe and making sure people’s kids don’t get sick.
During the massive salmonella outbreak caused by contaminated peanuts in 2008 and 2009, I got to know a victim’s son who testified on Capitol Hill during a hearing about it. It was a really tough item to work on, but the gentleman and I are still in touch and I keep meaning to reach out to him and say, “You’re never going to believe where I am right now.” I remember talking with him and I reached out when FSMA got passed to let him know I was thinking about his mom. I want to reach out to him again to let him know that I’m now with the FDA, leading CORE and how important it was to me to meet someone whose life was so impacted by a foodborne illness and put a face to what we were working so hard for.
Q: What do you want people to know about CORE?
I want people to know that the people of CORE are fantastic, smart, dedicated individuals. This job isn’t about me, but about protecting the public health and I can’t credit my staff enough for how hard they work to keep people safe. The sad thing about public health is that if you do your job perfectly, no one ever knows what you did, so much of what they do is simply unnoticed. It’s an incredibly challenging job and I know they don’t get the credit they deserve for all they do.