While taking an EMT course as an undergrad at GW, Jessica Federer, GWSPH BS ’05, developed an incredible amount of respect for the doctors and nurses she observed working night after night in the Emergency Room, but she was frustrated that they could not change the health care system or public health environment to prevent people from needing emergency treatment.
“So instead of focusing on medicine, the treatment of the individual, I grew interested in public health and how to make systemic changes that benefit an entire population,” Jessica says.
With support from GW professors, Jessica turned that interest into becoming the first undergraduate in the university’s public health program, which previously had been for master’s students only, at the Milken Institute School of Public Health (then the School of Public Health and Health Sciences).
After graduating from GW, Jessica’s passion for public health led her to stops at Yale (where she earned a master’s in public health) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services before joining Bayer, one of the world’s most recognized names in pharmaceuticals. Starting at Bayer in the company’s Global Regulatory Affairs group, she later joined the company’s newly-formed Market Access team before leading the Communications and Policy team for Bayer’s Animal Health division.
Today, Jessica is leading Bayer’s digital transformation as the multinational company’s Head of Digital Development.
“The digital revolution has changed how people interact with one another, with governments, and with businesses,” she says from her office in Germany. “My role is to bring together leaders across our company and use data and technology to find better ways of working collaboratively to help people, animals, and plants stay healthy.”
Jessica recognized early on the importance of knowing how to use data to improve public health and has made it a central pillar of her career. From the clinical trials that ensure new medicines are safe and effective, to determining the way public health groups can best use social media to interact with their patients and customers—data drives everything.
Jessica says that data and public health have been hand-in-hand since English physician John Snow, one of the fathers of epidemiology, placed data points on a map to track the spread of cholera in 1850s London back to a water pump.
“Today we still do something pretty similar—look at data points to figure out how to make the world a healthier place,” she says. “It’s just that now we have a lot more data and more sophisticated tools.”
Focusing on the health of populations the way public health does requires a significant amount of data, and companies like Bayer need to rapidly evolve and become early adopters of the latest technology to keep up. Jessica finds herself in a position to help make this way of thinking an essential and permanent part of how her company and others like it do business. “Eventually, when this digital way of working is fully embedded in our DNA, we can stop talking about digital because it will be our status-quo,” she says.
Leading the kind of transformation Jessica Federer is undertaking is daunting, but she believes that Bayer’s history of innovation and the talent the company has assembled makes this challenge an exciting one.
“The best part of my job is the people that are working with me to make change in a 150-year-old company,” she says. “We have some of the top scientific and innovative minds working on the biggest problems facing our world. What could be better?”
“What could be better?” is also how Bayer’s Chief Digital Officer looks back on her time at GW.
“GW was an incredible place to be a student and study public health,” Jessica says. “Where else could I intern on the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics and meet people like pioneering neurosurgeon Michael Gazzaniga, prolific humanist Leon Kass, or neurosurgeon and current presidential candidate Ben Carson? Or intern with the team updating the Human Subjects Protections guidance for Institutional Review Boards in the USA through the Agency for Health Care Research & Quality? ”
Jessica still sees in her alma mater today the same spirit of innovation and passion for change that was endemic of her time as a student.
“When I was at GW, we always had the saying that ‘something happens here,’ and it’s true,” she says. “GW empowers you to change the status quo by doing something different. If you want to change the world, Foggy Bottom is a great place to start.”