Local News

February 1, 2014

Tracking patient zero

Whitfield student takes part in CDC mock epidemic

Rodrigo Paramo, a 14-year-old student at North Whitfield Middle School, isn’t your average seventh-grader.

He’s already taken his SAT, receiving a 530 critical reading score and a 500 math score. He’s already researching the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), an exam typically taken by soon-to-be college grads. And he’s “excited” about one day being an “emergency medicine physician,” he said.

Oh. And he’s visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in his spare time, running outbreak simulations.

“It was so cool, going to the CDC,” Rodrigo said. “It was just amazing.”

Rodrigo was one of 36 students picked from 254 worldwide applicants to join the CDC’s Junior Disease Detective program, a three-day camp held during the summer of 2013. It was there he said he learned about smallpox, epidemiologists and how the nation would respond to biological terrorism, he said.

“I didn’t even know what the CDC was at first,” he said. “As I was reading through the application and stuff, I was just like, ‘Whoa, we’re going to be doing this kind of stuff?’”

Rodrigo, with a team of 17 students from as far away as California, helped CDC staff create a mock epidemic. The premise? An outbreak of chicken pox in Atlanta schools.

Rodrigo and his group had to hold mock interviews with fake parents played by CDC staff and used DNA profiling to track down “patient zero,” a term epidemiological scientists call the first person in a population that catches a fast-spreading disease.

“That’s what they primarily taught me, epidemic stuff,” Rodrigo said, noting he’s particularly fascinated by biological terrorism and how he — as a potential emergency doctor — may have to respond during a crisis.

He believes he has the educational chops to make a good doctor.

“I’m not even scared of blood,” he said.

Rodrigo said his drive stems from his mother and father, natives of southern Mexico who immigrated to Dalton before Rodrigo was born.

“They expect a lot,” he said, adding that he sometimes gets grounded if he “even makes a B.”

“I know where they’re coming from though,” he said. “My mother, she pushes me so I can be the best I can be. I kind of figured that out in middle school. I mean, you see a bunch of people in high school who have the chance to be better, but they don’t take that opportunity. I want to take that opportunity to be a better person and make a difference in this world.”

Shanda Hickman, an Eastbrook Middle School teacher to gifted students who helped Rodrigo apply to the CDC camp, said he’s “one of those dream kids you wish your classroom was filled with.” Rodrigo transferred from Eastbrook to North Whitfield this school year.

“When I found out about this (CDC camp) and I offered it out to about three or four students, a couple of them said, ‘Maybe another year.’ But Rodrigo really worked on making it happen,” Hickman said. “He’s great.”

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