British Invasion – My Career in Public Health

By Andrew C. Cannons, Ph.D., HCLD (ABB), Laboratory Director, Florida Bureau of Public Health Laboratories, Tampa

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” In England, students have to make these decisions early on, and at 14 my answer was a doctor or a chef. If you asked me back then what public health was I would have said “the health of the public!”

Andrew Cannons as a child

I was not to become a doctor, due to poor study habits as a child and I did not become a chef (except in my own kitchen), but I did get to university where I acquired a good tutelage in Eastern culture at the city of Bradford –known more for its excellent authentic curries and high volume of pubs than education. Four years later, I graduated with a degree in applied biology. I had a thirst for research, but no acquaintance yet with public health.

Having discovered I was good at research I stayed on at the University of Bradford to complete my Ph.D. in biochemistry, and followed that with a four-year post-doctorate at the University of Wales in Swansea where I also picked up a Welsh accent. I was trying to determine what I wanted to do, and quite frankly I drew a blank. As luck would have it, I soon met one of my field’s most world-renowned scientists at a conference in Spain.  He offered me a three-year post-doc opportunity in his lab at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa. I was excited, flattered and thrilled at the offer. And guess what… USF has a college of public health! I was getting closer to where I wanted to go without knowing it.

I had a blast for the first two years I was at USF, so much so that I wanted to stay. After a lot of work and a lot of payments to an immigration lawyer, I received my green card. But I was not really sure that research was my true vocation anymore. I had been an assistant professor in biology for five years and proved to be a good teacher, but it wasn’t fulfilling enough. During this time I met the assistant director of the Florida State Public Health Laboratory in Tampa. He was doing his Ph.D., and asked me to be on his dissertation committee. We became good friends and I started to find out more about public health, albeit at a very superficial level.

The turning point for my career in public health came one October morning. It was 5:00 AM on October 6th, 2001, three days after the index anthrax case was identified in Boca Raton and I received this message –“Can you help us at the public health lab? We are expecting an onslaught!”  No kidding.  By 6:00 PM that day we had processed 40 suspicious samples for Bacillus anthracis. I was tired and hungry, but more importantly, I was hooked. This was important, meaningful, critical work. Sign me up! Not so easy as there had to be a job.

Andrew Cannons -- adult

The following year I was asked if I had considered a career in public health, and specifically about directing a state public health laboratory. I had the Ph.D., the administration skills, and a research background. I just lacked some (a lot!) public health knowledge, and there was the small issue of a Florida Clinical License. So I spent the next eight years directing the research lab, volunteering in the public health lab, studying and building up my clinical licensure one level at a time. I also joined the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) as an individual member and applied for and became a member of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Committee (now the Public Health Preparedness and Response Committee).  This was a really smart thing to do.  It was such an eye opener to understanding more about public health laboratories, the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) and a host of other partners as well as their operations! This was a tremendous education and learning experience for me. Joining APHL became crucial to honing my public health knowledge and skills. In addition to serving on the Public Health Preparedness and Response Committee, various sub-committees and participating in the national meetings, in 2010 I was given the chance to be a member of the APHL Emerging Leaders Cohort III, which seeks to engage APHL members who will play a crucial role in sustaining future leadership in the public health laboratory system. This was a tremendous opportunity to 1) network and share operational experiences with other emerging leaders; 2) enhance my professional development; and 3) collaborate to deliver a product that promoted public health laboratory science.

In 2011 I became qualified as a High-Complexity Clinical Laboratory Director through the American Board of Bioanalysis (ABB) and received my Florida Clinical Laboratory Director License. I was ready, and in April 2012 I assumed the position of Laboratory Director, Bureau of Laboratories (now Bureau of Public Health Laboratories), Tampa.  I acquired a great facility and a wonderful group of dedicated, hardworking and loyal staff, which has made this move so much easier and more fulfilling.

Since transitioning to a director of a major public health laboratory, I have worked on large-scale national events such as the Republic National Convention.  As a 14-year-old boy, I never thought I would end up partnering with the US Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect the public’s health from all sorts of threats. Public health was the perfect career choice for me even though it took several forks in the road for me to get here.

Through it all, I’ve held to the motto: Keep Calm and Carry On!