For as long as she can remember, Yen Pottinger has had a deep curiosity about how viruses work. “I love viruses over organisms like bacteria and parasites,” Yen says excitedly. “Viruses are very efficient. They get the job done. HIV, for instance, is especially brilliant–it attacks the cells that you use to attack the virus, and it integrates itself into your genome so once you’re infected, you can’t get rid of it,” she says. A worthy opponent for this modern-day science hero.
Yen, armed with a PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology from University of California–Davis, is senior technical advisor for laboratory surveillance with ICAP–Columbia University, a leading center for global disease response and treatment in some of the most resource-challenged countries in the world. ICAP tackles the world’s toughest health challenges—from HIV to tuberculosis, from malaria to maternal and child health, the growing problem of non-communicable diseases, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
With ICAP, Yen’s work focuses on implementing HIV public health programs primarily in Africa, using data to understand key transmission dynamics and to design prevention efforts. She has served as the laboratory technical lead for large surveillance projects in 14 countries globally, leading the laboratory design and protocol writing, survey implementation, laboratory data review, and dissemination of survey results.
Yen also served as HIV Team Lead at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where she was the architect of the most widely used incidence assay for HIV surveillance studies in the world to this day.
Over the course of her career, Yen has headed into outbreaks of the world’s most virulent diseases for data collection. Her fearless pursuit of accurate public health information on a global scale surely took root in her family story. At just six months old, Yen and 68 members of her family fled Vietnam following the Vietnam War. Yen’s father secretly built a boat in his sugar facility to transport his family across the sea. The long and treacherous boat trip ended in Indonesia where they spent six months before being sponsored by a church organization to come to the United States. After emigrating to Canada, they established a successful bakery, and the challenge-seeking Yen found Emma Willard.
On Mount Ida, Yen seemed to find more hours in a day than most students, pursuing her academics, lacrosse and field hockey, choir, classical guitar, reporting for The Clock, acting, leading the community service club, actively participating in Amnesty International, and editing the arts magazine.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019, Yen has provided technical assistance and guidance to CDC and other U.S. government entities, ministries of health globally, and other partners on SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic and safety protocols, and currently leads a number of COVID-19 seroprevalence studies in sub-Saharan Africa.
Her advice for people planning to pursue a career in laboratory science is to be curious. “Find ways to answer questions that are important not just for labs, but for public health.” According to Yen in a recent interview, “Science will save the day, and the laboratory is the keystone to improving programs and outcomes. With the COVID-19 outbreak, it has become apparent to the global community how essential testing and laboratory staff are to understanding the pandemic and getting it under control.”
Yen hopes more young scientists will consider laboratory work as a career choice. “It is so vital, and your work has a direct impact on people’s lives.” Yen has generously participated in Emma Willard campus events as a speaker for Honors Convocation, at the Bicentennial, and most recently, on an alumnae panel, “After COVID-19: Reshaping Public Health.”
For devoting her life to ensuring communities around the world have powerful and accurate data on which to base healthcare decisions, and for inspiring the next generation of intrepid scientists, the Emma Willard community proudly bestows upon Yen Duong Pottinger ’97 the 2022 Distinguished Alumna Award.