Why YOU Should Consider a Career in Public Health Laboratory Science

By Laura Siegel, Specialist, National Center for Public Health Laboratory Leadership, APHL

Did you know that public health laboratory staff protect the nation from emerging infectious diseases, foodborne illness outbreaks, agents of bioterrorism and environmental contaminants?

Laura SiegelIf the answer is “no,” don’t feel bad because I had no idea either! Prior to working at APHL, I couldn’t tell you what a public health laboratory does or even realize why I should know. I didn’t know a thing about public health. If I had known, though, I might have looked into it as a career option.

Early in my undergraduate career, I was in a phase of career exploration, and there was a brief period when I really wanted to be a nurse.  I enjoyed a lot of science classes in school, but I also enjoyed writing. So I sought an opportunity where I could get a taste for both.

I got an internship in the communications department of a nearby hospital.  While I was there, a news channel arrived to interview a physician about a hot new procedure. I only heard half the interview because I woke up on the floor, having fainted halfway through the presentation. At that moment I realized maybe nursing wasn’t for me.

But, before my brief fantasy where I become a nurse and saved hundreds of lives, I was aware of the nation’s severe nursing shortage (one of the reasons why I looked into the field). I could even rattle off the talking points about the reasons for the shortage: an aging population, fewer people entering the field, not enough instructors and degree programs.  I saw advertisements about it on the Metro, in the newspaper and even on Facebook.

Now I find myself wondering, Why wasn’t I also aware of the severe shortage of public health workers? I had no idea there were career options for science-minded students in public health laboratories. I had no idea that the need for public health laboratory scientists is just as great, if not greater, than the need for nurses. I had no idea that I could make a living running around like Kate Winslet in Contagion.

Now, almost four years later, I find myself in a position where IT’S MY JOB to tell people about careers in public health. I work for APHL’s National Center for Public Health Laboratory Leadership, (NCPHLL – APHL loves long acronyms), promoting careers in public health laboratory science. Via this post, (and many more to come), I’m hoping to reach students who are still searching for their path as I was.

My Top 10 Reasons Why Public Health Laboratory Careers are so Rewarding, Appealing, Awesome and Should Not be Overlooked:

  1. Public health is trendy: the top universities in the country all have recently added public health undergraduate programs.
  2. Public health could save a life…or protect a whole community: newborn screening; Anthrax; stopping a deadly foodborne illness outbreak .
  3. You get to wear a lab coat. Extremely flattering.
  4. Medical laboratory scientist jobs will be among the fastest growing jobs in the next decade.
  5. Your vocabulary will improve in an almost Star Wars-esque way. You will routinely impress people by throwing around words like Non-O157 STEC and Chikungunya fever.
  6. Demand – Public health laboratories are facing a workforce shortage which means you will be saving a crucial service to the community.
  7. Your mom/significant other/dad/cousin will be proud and ridiculously impressed.
  8. You can work in any state in the nation: Every US state, territory and the District of Columbia has a public health laboratory… even Hawaii and Puerto Rico!
  9. Scientists are cool!  Look at Bill Nye and Mr. Wizard!  Those are some cool dudes.
  10. The people in the workforce are awesome, and the job satisfaction cannot be beat. Hear it from current public health lab scientists:

Phil Lee from the Florida public health lab talks about identifying the index case of Anthrax in 2001
A. Christian Whalen, director of the Hawaii state public health lab, talks about landing the best job in the state
More Career Field Stories

Related articles

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Nicole Patterson at 3:31 pm

    So I just want you to know that this article is awesome and that it hit home for me. Since my Sophmore year in high school I have focused on becoming a nurse, I had the vision of saving hundreds of people and traveling the world with “healing hands”. I never really considered any other career and no one really pushed me to think about other options. My parents were just relieved I picked a major with job security.
    Now I am currently a pre-nursing student at Salisbury University in Maryland, in my Microbiology class this semester my teacher mentioned career option in public health, specifically epidemiology. Ever since that lecture I have been scavenging for any and all information I could find about public health careers. Today I actually just met with one of the department heads for community health at my school and am so excited to start in some classes next semester.
    On the bus home I happened to look up health science careers on Pinterest, low and behold I found this article. I am honestly so happy that someone else is confident in this career choice and that it really will pay off.
    So I thank you for taking the time to write this article, because really it has made a difference in my life and it has inspired me to pursue a career in public health. I will save the world and I will love my job.

    Thank you again,
    Nicole Patterson

    If you could contact me further with any advise or just so I can ask you a few more questions the email I listed is the best mean for communication. I look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Eric Okereke at 7:28 am

    Thanks a lot Laura.
    i’m actually a medical lab. scientist with a masters degree in public health. i’m seriously interested in doing a Ph.D program in public health laboratory. My constrain here in nigeria is that there is no institution/facility in pub. health lab. Pls i need ur advice. ERIC.

  3. Christina at 1:49 pm

    Hi Laura,
    I graduated with my bachelor’s in biology in 2009 and began my master’s last year in forensic science. I really want a career in a public health lab but I have no experience outside of school and I don’t know where/how to get started. I currently work full time as an Industrial Hygienist so I have a background in public health with a focus on occupational safety and health. What do you suggest?

    • APHL Author at 10:05 am

      Hi Christina,

      The best place to get started is to look at the website for your local or state public health laboratory (PHL), and check what job, internship or volunteer opportunities they have. If you’re interested in working at the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), is another great resource for public health related job information.

      The Association of Public Health Laboratories, (APHL), in partnership with the CDC, has a fellowship program designed for bachelors and masters level graduates. The fellowship places individuals in 1 to 2 year positions in PHLs across the country. The application information for next year’s class, (2016 – 2017), will be available on our website later this fall. The CDC also offers a wide variety of fellowships that may interest you.

      I also recommend following APHL’s blog, which frequently features career stories of individuals who currently work in PHLs. Within a PHL there are many different kinds of jobs and areas of specialization, so reading some of these stories may give you an idea of what type of position would interest you most. Thatssick.org, a website produced by a group within APHL, is another resource for PHL career stories.

      The Association of Schools of Public Health and the American Public Health Association are also great resources for information on public health careers.

      If you have any more questions, feel free to contact me directly at laura.siegel@aphl.org.



Leave a Reply