Dallas to D.C.: USDA official has fond memories of training

By Lin Lofley / Week of Jan. 15-21, 2011

Recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate as agriculture undersecretary for food safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen credits her training at UT Southwestern for giving her the grounding she needed. When she arrived at UT Southwestern and Parkland Memorial Hospital 14 years ago to begin her medical residency in internal medicine, she was already leaning toward specializing in infectious diseases.

“I looked at a lot of programs,” Dr. Hagen said, “but when I saw the quality of instruction and the rigor of the training, I knew that UT Southwestern was where I wanted to go.”

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen

After completing her residency in 1999, she spent a year in Parkland’s Community Oriented Primary Care system, the first of several appointments in the private and academic sectors. She eventually became a senior executive at the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), playing a key role in developing and executing the agency’s scientific and public health agendas. At the time of her nomination to undersecretary in early 2010, she had moved from the FSIS to be the USDA’s chief medical officer.

As undersecretary, Dr. Hagen now leads the FSIS, an agency of about 10,000 employees with a budget of $1 billion. The agency is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s supply of meat, poultry and processed egg products is safe and correctly labeled and packaged.

“Coming back to lead the food safety mission is a lot different than my time within FSIS,” Dr. Hagen said. “It’s a different scope of responsibilities now. Before, I was focused on science and epidemiology. As undersecretary, I have to consider that and so much more.”

A graduate of Harvard Medical School, she received her undergraduate degree from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. In addition to her residency at UT Southwestern, she received training at the University of Pennsylvania and is board-certified in infectious diseases. Her experience includes research and publications in infectious diseases and providing medical care to underserved populations.

Her memories of the medical center are strong.

“I still remember the long nights on call, and the months working in the intensive care unit, and when I talk with people about doing their training at UT Southwestern, I always refer to two things about the training programs – the culture of excellence and the academic rigor that goes with it. Doing training there is really intense, a truly hands-on experience.

“Professionally, it’s a great place to learn,” she said. “The sheer volume of patient encounters and the breadth of opportunities to help people make the whole experience of residency training at UT Southwestern and Parkland memorable.”