What do you envision when you hear the words public health laboratory? Perhaps you see an outdated, mundane brick building with the words “Health Laboratory” plastered on the side. Maybe cream colored rooms filled with antique equipment run by scientists wearing long white lab coats. So why do these thoughts and images come to mind? For me, it is because I come from a background that includes experience in drab but bustling hospital laboratories where the halls echo with terms like throughput and turnaround time. I’ve also been to the “dark side,” as my colleagues and I would jestingly call our university research laboratory, where frustration with failed experiments combined with exhausting late nights isolated at our bench tops.
I’ve been in quite a few different labs so I thought I had a good idea of what a public health laboratory might be like. My first visit to the state public health was quite an eye opener.
I gained an interest in microbiology in a clinical diagnostic laboratory, also known in the public health field as a sentinel laboratory. Each day of the week, hundreds of specimens would pour in the door from all over the county and it was my job to sort the specimens and run diagnostic tests. Most were negative, some were positive, and few were “special.” These specimens needed further processing beyond the capabilities of our small laboratory. So the samples were sent to another laboratory and I never knew what happened after that. My first real experience in a public health laboratory was mind-boggling and I’m learning now that it was probably just the beginning of the trip for the referred sample; those special samples could have made their way to a local or state public health laboratory, maybe a neighboring state public health laboratory or even as far as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratories in Atlanta.
Today, along with my partners on APHL’s Public Health Preparedness and Response team, I am standing outside of the District of Columbia Public Health Laboratory, which is now part of the Department of Forensic Sciences (interesting, right?). The state-of-the-art building is made entirely of polished steel beams and glass panels reaching up to the sky. What I saw when we walked inside was new, clean, organized and fancy… yes, fancy. I had never seen futuristic Ping-Pong ball air pressure monitors built into the walls, pass-through autoclaves large enough to fit small cars, or retina scanners for entry into secure areas; you only see this stuff in movies. Each room was filled with massive instruments and as I walked around like a kid in a candy store I remembered why we were here. The reason for today’s visit was not only to tour the new facility, but also discuss how my team could assist this laboratory in enhancing its laboratory capabilities. But for me, this visit meant more; it meant learning just what a public health laboratory does. While not all public health laboratories have the means to open new state-of-the-art facilities, they all have common missions: protect the public’s health. That’s the most important feature of any public health lab.
A major difference between public health laboratories and clinical laboratories is that clinical laboratories focus on individual patients, whereas public health laboratories are concerned with populations and how test results can affect entire communities. I learned that sentinel laboratories are often the first line of defense, but state and local public health laboratories have significantly more capabilities when it comes to specialized testing for things like sexually transmitted disease, contaminants in drinking water and radioactivity. Furthermore, when biological and chemical threats arise, the state and large local public health laboratories which comprise the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) are responsible for timely, accurate testing and reporting of results.
My takeaway: public health laboratories are silent heroes and people aren’t always aware of the great work that is constantly happening inside of them. But, whether it was the anthrax attacks of 2001, daily newborn screenings or the inevitable annual flu fiasco, public health laboratories are always working hard on the front lines. The future is now and begins with public awareness, staffing of trained scientists, providing advanced technologies and ensuring that planning is ever-evolving to keep up with tomorrow’s issues. Learning about these issues has enlightened me and I look forward to the future and what my experiences in public health will have to offer.
Read more about the new DC public health laboratory here: Big Changes for the District of Columbia Public Health Laboratory