by Joe Shea, MS, research assistant, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health
My career as a laboratory scientist started in a yogurt factory. Yes, you read that correctly. And no, it was definitely not your typical lab experience. Instead of putting on a lab coat each day, I would change from my street clothes into freshly cleaned white pants, a button-down shirt, steel-toe boots and a hairnet. I’d begin my day walking through large rooms crowded with industrial steel pipes carrying yogurt in every direction, a site I initially found intimidating. I spent my time measuring the pH, fat content, protein content and bacterial contamination of milk, heavy cream and yogurt. The skills I gained as an undergraduate biology student at Siena College were being applied to quality assurance and ensuring that our products were safe for human consumption.
It was a great job, but I had the urge to move into something I would find more meaningful.
During a visit to my alma mater, I heard about a seminar for students who were interested in public health graduate programs. On a whim I decided to go. At the seminar I learned about the Wadsworth Center’s (New York’s state public health laboratory) Master of Science in Laboratory Sciences (MLS) program, which at the time was only in its first year of existence. The MLS program combines coursework and laboratory rotations in fields ranging from biomonitoring, clinical chemistry and genetics to infectious disease and immunology, while also providing courses in laboratory management. Shortly after, I completed my application and was accepted into the MLS class of 2015 – the second class in the history of the program.
The highlight of the program was my capstone project, an eight-month project in the lab of my choosing. I chose to rotate through the Mycobacteriology Laboratory, and became fascinated with the amount of testing it takes to diagnose and confirm cases of tuberculosis (TB), and to perform drug susceptibility testing on each of those confirmed samples. I decided to focus on utilizing whole genome sequencing (WGS) to identify Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of TB, and detect mutations associated with drug resistance in clinical isolates.
Drug resistant strains of TB represent a global health concern, as there are fewer treatment options and a higher likelihood of poor outcomes. Conventional drug susceptibility testing can take eight weeks or longer in some cases, which means that patients may receive ineffective treatment until these results are available. Currently, several different tests are needed to assess drug resistance; WGS, however, could be used to detect these potential mutations while also identifying the M. tuberculosis species and strain type. WGS would take far less time and provide more useful and detailed information than current methods and could decrease the time it takes for tuberculosis patients to receive appropriate treatments.
Having the opportunity to work alongside public health laboratory scientists at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center was an invaluable experience. I believe in the importance of this work, and I loved having the chance to contribute to the groundbreaking work being done at the Wadsworth Center.
I recently graduated from the MLS program and am continuing to work in the Mycobacteriology Laboratory. I’ll be focusing on using WGS to identify and detect TB in clinical specimens (rather than pure isolates) which is challenging due to the presence of other sources of DNA in the sample. This position will also enable me to contribute to other ongoing projects in the lab using WGS, including the study of other pathogenic bacteria such as Legionella pneumophila.
Sometimes I think about that last-minute decision to attend the seminar at Siena College where I learned about this great program; it changed the course of my career by exposing me to a whole world of laboratory science that I had never considered.