Cindy Beard earned the Toffler Scholar Award in 2021 at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, Epidemiology Department.
Cindy Beard was born in Darnestown, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. The daughter of two mechanical engineers, Beard grew up exploring and enjoying the outdoors with her parents and her brother. She credits this early introduction to the natural world for spurring her nascent interest in biology and ecology.
In addition to fostering her curiosity about nature and the ecosystem, Beard’s mother and father played a big role in her pre-college education. When helping her with her studies, they consistently encouraged her to find the solution or answer on her own. This approach ultimately sparked her interest in the scientific process and research, two elements that are now at the core of her scholarly pursuits.
From kindergarten through high school, Beard was part of an exceptional public school system that employed equally exceptional teachers. One experience stands out to her in particular. During her seventh grade science class, she and her classmates studied infectious diseases. As part of the coursework, she completed a project on Dengue Fever, a mosquito-borne viral infection that causes severe joint and muscle pain. Dengue Fever is one of a number of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), so named because they are more prevalent among the world’s poorer populations and, thus, receive little attention compared to other diseases. Beard was intrigued by infectious diseases like these. She wondered about their impact on communities, especially during major outbreaks.
As Beard entered high school, her interests expanded to include emergency management and homeland security. Her mother was working with the U.S. Department of Defense, which fueled Beard's growing curiosity about the two fields. This interest followed her through high school and into college, where she constantly sought ways to merge her interests
in biology, ecology, and homeland security. This ultimately led to her exploration of bioterrorism preparedness and emergency management, especially in response to infectious disease outbreaks. She began taking courses on biology of infectious disease, public health, and pandemics and their impact on society.
After graduating with her BA in Biology and Spanish from the University of Virginia, Beard spent two years working for a small emergency management and homeland security consulting firm in Washington D.C. The work she did with the firm, including assessing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ response to the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, cemented her interest in the field.
Even while working at the consulting firm, Beard knew that she wanted to pursue a Masters of Public Health (MPH). After exploring several programs, she landed at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Fielding School of Public Health. Beard completed her MPH at UCLA and is now earning her PhD.
“By developing a better understanding of how those on the front lines are impacted by a pandemic, we could improve our ability to respond at the local, state, and federal level to a health crisis.”
– Cindy Beard, MPH
Beard was originally planning to conduct her dissertation research on HIV prevention in pregnant and postpartum women in South Africa. Her field work in South Africa focused on the behaviors, attitudes, etc. that impacted the effectiveness of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in that population. Beard was in the process of ramping up her dissertation research on this subject when COVID-19 hit. So, Beard shifted course and joined her advisor, Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, and UCLA School of Medicine’s Dr. Grace Aldrovandi in conducting a study on health system workers and first responders in Los Angeles County.
At the start of their project, SARS-CoV-2 testing was not widely available, so data was extremely limited, which made it difficult for individuals, governments, and other organizations to respond effectively to the pandemic. In addition, the health system was severely impacted, with first responders and health system workers experiencing immense pressure and difficult working conditions.
Focus and Priorities
The team provided weekly SARS-CoV-2 viral testing as well as bi-monthly antibody testing for health system workers and first responders, generating much-needed data while also helping high-risk professional populations surveil for COVID-19.
As the study went on, Beard grew increasingly interested in how essential workers were being affected by COVID-19, especially in terms of mental health. She was also curious about the impact of COVID-19 on educators and students. This, she realized, would be the perfect focus for her research.
The underlying thread of Beard’s dissertation research is understanding the different ways that essential workers have been impacted by COVID-19. Specifically, she is researching how their mental health has changed throughout the course of the pandemic correlating with key milestones, such as the early days of COVID-19, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), settling into a “covid protocol rhythm” during the summer, the fall-winter surge, vaccine distribution, etc.
As part of this research, she’s also exploring how the pandemic has affected the mental healthcare-seeking behaviors of essential workers, and she is looking to identify facilitators for or barriers to getting mental health care for this population.
Another key element of Beard’s dissertation research is investigating the impact of COVID-19 on the education system. This portion of her research has two parts.
One involves evaluating vaccine attitudes and mental health in educators throughout the course of the pandemic. To study these ideas, the team surveyed several hundred educators to assess their vaccine attitudes. Once they gather the results from this survey, they will send out a second set of questions focused on understanding educators’ mental health throughout the pandemic. Beard is curious to see how returning to in-person instruction is impacting educators, in terms of mental health and their attitudes in general.
The second portion of Beard’s education research involves identifying different risk factors for infection in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) employees throughout the pandemic.
Beard also wants to conduct research to understand the infection risk factors for LAUSD students. With much of the population now vaccinated, investigators are working to assess the vaccine’s effectiveness in schools. For this research, Beard is currently developing a proposal, which she will submit to the institutional review board (IRB) for assessment, negotiations, and approval.
For Beard, the ongoing global health crisis demonstrates how critical it is to be able to rapidly ramp up, launch, and conduct research. Likewise, it’s essential to have people in place who can understand the takeaways from that research and communicate it to policy makers. An approach like this would greatly improve our ability to create and implement emergency management policies that solve problems as quickly and effectively as possible.
If Beard and researchers like her can work with local, state, and federal health organizations, they could integrate research into the policy development lifecycle. This would not only help our health systems better prepare for major
events, it would also improve their services, address inequities across jurisdictions, and elevate their overall ability to meet their communities’ needs.
As Beard moves forward in her career, she hopes to provide this type of expertise for policymakers. By working with local or state health organizations, she can begin to better understand how policy decisions are made “on the ground floor.” Then, as she gains knowledge and expertise, she can take those lessons to the federal and global level by working with private and public organizations, such as the CDC or a non-governmental organization (NGO).
Karen Toffler Charitable Trust Investment
The Investment from the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust will enable Cindy Beard to devote her time and energy to her dissertation research. It will also offer her the opportunity to gain invaluable experience handling the more structural and administrative aspects of research. Prior to starting her dissertation research, Beard entered studies during the analysis phase, working exclusively with existing data. This is her first time overseeing a research project from concept to approval to implementation. The skills she is gaining — such as setting up a study, engaging with an IRB, writing a protocol, editing survey questions, and programming surveys into software — will be imperative to her future work both as a Toffler Scholar and an epidemiological researcher.
“I am hopeful that what we learn from these studies will allow us to better protect essential workers from COVID-19 infection moving forward, and will enhance our understanding of the risk of occupational exposure versus community exposure.”
– Cindy Beard, MPH