Expectations were always high for Veronica Sansing-Foster, but her ascent to administrator and researcher at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wasn't the result of a calculated career path. Reflecting on the road that took her from the South Side of Chicago to the key post, she cites her own ability and hard work, her ties to generous mentors at Pitt Public Health, and a measure of serendipity.
Sansing-Foster grew up in the South Side of Chicago surrounded by models of academic achievement. Her mother was a school teacher, several aunts and uncles were physicians and scientists, and her father honed advanced academic skills in her as a child. Growing up in an extended family of artists and dancers also instilled a love of the art in her. She would unexpectedly combine these interests to shape a distinguished professional path.
She remained in the Windy City until graduating from the University of Chicago in 1999 with an honor's degree in psychology. A National Institutes of Health research fellowship led her to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she worked on cognitive research on children and language. She then began work at UPMC Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, helping to recruit subjects and manage data for an international study of anorexia and other eating disorders. At the same time, she was taking dance lessons. She would eventually find time to work professionally as a dancer and dance instructor at Pittsburgh's Dance Alloy Theater. That interest prodded her career in an unexpected direction when a dance teacher urged her to apply for a research position at the Epidemiology Data Center at Pitt Public Health.
Sansing-Foster interviewed for the post with the late Katherine Detre. On her way to the interview, she had a chance encounter with Stephen B. Thomas, then director of the school’s Center for Minority Health. Both Detre and Thomas would serve as mentors: Detre molded an interest in epidemiology and biostatistics while Thomas encouraged her to include minority and underserved communities in research and clinical outreach. She credits Detre in particular for urging her to pursue a PhD and for providing her with the scholarship resources that made that goal possible. She also credits Maria Mori-Brooks as an influential advisor upon the passing of Detre.
"Talk about serendipity and God looking out for me," she said of the relationships that began the day of the interview. "I was so blessed to have mentors like Katherine Detre; she was like my grandmother."
While pursuing her PhD, Sansing-Foster studied issues like combined treatments for heart disease and diabetes. In 2012, her co-authored research paper won the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology’s Best Paper award. Simultaneously, she handled responsibilities as a project coordinator at the Center for Minority Health, helping to develop campaigns targeting minority patients.
After gaining her MS in 2008 and her PhD in 2010, Sansing-Foster was recruited by the Division of Epidemiology at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the FDA in Silver Spring, Maryland. She’s worked as a team leader and branch chief for the Cardiovascular, Neurological, and Physical Medicine Device Branch, where she was responsible for directing postmarket surveillance and research of medical devices, as well as the oversight of multiple epidemiologists with over 60 research studies and medical device registries. She now serves as pharmacoepidemiologist for the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, researching and reviewing studies on postmarket drug safety signals.
Sansing-Foster notes her debt to a variety of role models. While in high school, she was paired with a young lawyer named Michelle Obama in the Sister Souljah Mentorship Program, with whom she maintained this relationship throughout college. In the course of her distinguished career, she’s long since made the transition from mentee to being a mentor and role model herself. In 2013, she was invited back to Pitt to speak about her work at the FDA and to mentor younger scholars interested in federal careers in science.
Asked recently to offer advice to aspiring medical researchers, she recommended a combined right-brain, left-brain approach: Develop expertise in biostatistics while keeping in mind the research design and social implications behind the data. "It can be daunting, but it teaches you to really scrutinize the data in front of you,’’ she said. "If you are not able to carefully scrutinize data, someone else can pull the wool over your eyes."
But she also urges young researchers not to let the statistics, however elegantly compiled or presented, to become their sole focus. Researchers must understand what biases exist within the data, account for them, and then translate those numbers into evidence-based public health needs.
"One thing that Pitt prepared me very well for was the empathy and application of my research in the real world," she said. Whenever she approaches a new research project, she asks herself, "How is this affecting the human beings I am investigating? Will this help people?"