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Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, MA
Senior Scholar, Assistant Professor

Human biology anthropological science

P: 443-573-4504

Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, MA
Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, MA

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Professional Profile

Dr. Sell is a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. At the Center, she conducts, manages, and leads research projects to develop a greater understanding of potentially large-scale health events. She also serves as an Associate Editor of the peer-reviewed journal Health Security (formerly Biosecurity and Bioterrorism).

Dr. Sell’s work focuses on improving public health policy and practice in order to reduce the health impacts of disasters and terrorism. She works on qualitative and quantitative research analyses, development of strategy and policy recommendations, convening of working groups and conferences, and the publication of scientific articles. Her primary research interests include biosecurity and biodefense, public health preparedness, emerging infectious disease, federal funding and budgeting, and nuclear preparedness policy and practice.

Dr. Sell’s research projects focus on using lessons from recent and past health emergencies to improve response and preparedness for future events. She is currently leading projects related to misinformation around highly feared infectious disease outbreaks. She is also developing an infectious disease prediction platform that utilizes the wisdom of the crowd to make forecasts about infectious disease outcomes. Another project, developed in collaboration with JHU Whiting School of Engineering collaborators, seeks to improve understanding of the health impacts and public health response priorities for longer-term electrical power outages. She is also co-leading the development of a new large-scale global pandemic exercise.

Dr. Sell has been principal investigator on several CDC-funded projects. One incorporated a mixed-method approach using the Zika virus outbreak as a case study to understand more about how public health communication practices can be strengthened to improve public understanding, acceptance, and response during future infectious disease outbreaks. Another investigated how decisions on Ebola policies were made at the state level and what factors beyond CDC guidelines played the most significant roles in shaping state and local policy.

Dr. Sell has also led several research projects to provide strategic recommendations regarding the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) Process and the Chemical and Biological Defense Division in DHS. In addition, she conducts research and analysis of the funding and management of civilian biodefense, radiological/nuclear defense, and chemical defense programs in the US government, providing an accounting of federal funding on a yearly basis.

Dr. Sell’s other research efforts focus on public health and resilience at a local level, evaluating local responses to recent outbreaks, local public health needs for community engagement, and local capabilities and needs. Dr. Sell co-authored the Rad Resilient City Preparedness Checklist, which provides cities and their neighbors with actions to save lives in the event of a nuclear detonation. She also co-authored a comprehensive analysis of preparedness activities in communities located in the Emergency Planning Zones of nuclear power plants.

Dr. Sell joined the Center in 2009 as an Analyst and subsequently served as Senior Analyst and Associate. Prior to joining the Center, she maintained a career as a professional athlete. She was a member of the USA national swim team for 8 years, and she served as captain for 6 USA national swim teams. In 2004 she broke the world record in the 100 breaststroke (Short Course Meters), and she earned a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Dr. Sell completed her PhD from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management, where she was a Sommer Scholar. Her dissertation work focused on public policy responses to emerging epidemics and specifically how the media and policy intertwine in the case of Ebola and the health consequences of these policy actions. She received a BA in human biology and an MA in anthropological sciences from Stanford University. In 2005 she was a Rhodes Scholar finalist.


Our Mission

To protect people’s health from epidemics and disasters and ensure that communities are resilient to major challenges.