Archive for the 'Workforce & Professional Development' category

APHL Staffer Shares her Career Path with the Next Generation of Public Health Students

Jan 21 2015 :: Published in Workforce & Professional Development

By: Bertina Su, MPH, Senior Specialist, Laboratory Systems and Standards, APHL

Last fall I was invited back to my alma mater to talk about life after University of Maryland’s (UMD) Master of Public Health (MPH) program. A former classmate was coordinating an informational session for undergraduate students to help them get a sense of where the MPH grads went in their careers; she asked me to participate and I happily accepted both because she is a friend but also because I could have used an event like this when I was finishing my undergrad degree.

APHL Staffer Shares her Career Path with the Next Generation of Public Health Students |

My journey into public health was not something that I planned. I earned a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee in chemistry, but as graduation loomed, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after receiving my diploma. Reality was sinking in. My fellow chemistry classmates went into research or continued to medical school, and while those options seemed to be the logical next steps, they were not the right fit for me.

I took a year off after graduation to volunteer at Bread for the City, a non-profit in Washington, DC, that provides food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services residents in need; it was there that I became exposed to the world of public health. I worked in the medical clinic doing mostly administrative work helping with health insurance enrollment and coordinating health education programs. I began to understand what public health was, and that I could use my science education in this field to help people. I spoke with many of the staff about how they found their way into public health, and they all had MPH degrees. It became clear that if I wanted to move my career in this direction, I needed to find an MPH program that worked for me. Before I knew it, I was back in school learning about biostatistics, program evaluation and epidemiology. After completing UMD’s two-year MPH program, I interviewed for a program manager position at APHL, and I have been here ever since.

Fast forward a few years… There I am setting up my information table at UMD’s School of Public Health featuring APHL’s Annual Report, Lab Matters and my own business cards. I even wore my APHL STAPH staff t-shirt. I had the opportunity to speak with several students who asked questions mostly about my MPH experience and responsibilities at APHL. Some were not familiar with either public health laboratories or association work, so it was rewarding to expand their knowledge. I talked about my quality improvement and survey work, but their ears really perked up when I told them that I get to travel and work with people all over the country.

I’d love to see undergraduate public health programs hold more events like this one to give the next round of graduates the opportunity to hear from alumni about their journey into the public health workforce and about other career paths they had not considered. While my path into public health may have been unconventional, I am thankful that I took it. The work has been rewarding, and I hope that my participation will encourage another public health student to pursue an equally fulfilling position.

I encourage you to contact your alma mater to share your knowledge, experience and lessons-learned with public health students. You just might inspire someone to pursue a career in a public health lab.

No responses yet

APHL Introduces Local Students to Lab Careers During STEM Event

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

“Wanna see something fun and twisted? This is my DNA,” says a nine-year-old boy with brown hair and glasses as he greets his mom, proudly holding up his self-made DNA necklace.

APHL Introduces Local Students to Lab Careers During STEM Event |

He was just one of approximately 30 local students who attended an event called Science League: The Heroes of Public Health on Saturday, May 31, 2014, at the University of Arkansas School for Medical Sciences (UAMS). The event invited local students in grades 6-10 to participate in hands-on science activities and learn about careers in public health.

“If we make a difference in the career aspirations of just one student, then the event will be a success,” said Pandora Ray, Director of the National Center for Public Health Laboratory Leadership at APHL.

Students were able to extract their own DNA, make a homemade lava lamp, and create their very own oobleck, a gooey substance that has properties of both a liquid and a solid.

APHL Introduces Local Students to Lab Careers During STEM Event |“I always thought I wanted to be a doctor when I grow up, but this event opened my eyes to other options,” said Ana De Lira, currently in ninth grade at eStem Public Charter High School.

While the students were conducting experiments, their parents toured the Arkansas Public Health Laboratory, located just a few blocks from UAMS. On the tour parents watched a live demonstration of a dry-ice bubble, examined agar plates, saw equipment used for HIV and Hepatitis testing and learned about newborn screening.

“I had no idea the lab does so much testing that effects the general public. I can’t believe they do so much,” said Tracy Hobbs, who attended the parent portion of the day.

This event was sponsored by APHL, The UAMS College of Public Health and the Arkansas Department of Health, with special thanks to Bio-Rad and Fisher for donating supplies. APHL plans to host a similar event prior to the 2015 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis.

No responses yet

Discovering the Link Between Environmental Health and Public Health

April 20-26 is Laboratory Professionals Week! This year APHL is focusing on environmental health and the laboratorians who work to detect the presence of contaminants in both people and in the environment.  This post is part of a series.


By Kathryn Wangsness, Chief, Office of Laboratory Services, Arizona State Public Health Laboratory

Ever since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to do something in the field of science that would help others.  Originally I thought of becoming a doctor or a nurse, but determined early on that was not for me.  I was then interested in perhaps teaching science at the high school level.  However, in high school I determined that I would much rather be doing testing that would assist others on a population scale.

Discovering the Link Between Environmental Health and Public Health |

While working on my degree in Chemistry, I got a job with an insect ecologist and, later, a plant ecologist. I learned how we interact with our environment and how impacts on the environment affected the public.  It wasn’t until I graduated and was fortunate enough to land a job with the Arizona State Public Health Laboratory Chemistry section that I started seeing the connection to public health.

Early on in my career I started noticing that when there was an event that would have a potential environmental health impact, we would receive samples to provide needed information.  Performing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) methods on a routine basis and in emergency situations taught me the importance of the work we do.  As I progressed through my career at the public health laboratory, I became an EPA Certification Officer for the state of Arizona and with the Arizona State Public Health Laboratory, which allowed me to expand my horizons and see how the environmental laboratory community was contributing to the safety and health of Arizonans.  I learned that the treatment of drinking water was one of the greatest revolutions in public health and that ensuring we continue to have a functioning system was critical to preventing reoccurrence of diseases like cholera.  During this time, I realized that I wanted to stay in public health and went on to earn a Master of Health Administration in 2007.

I also began to explore biomonitoring and the lab’s past, present and future involvement.  Biomonitoring allows us to explore the connections between the environment and the population to help promote and protect the public.  In my current role as Office Chief of Laboratory Services and Quality Assurance Manager, as well as in my previous role, I have the opportunity to provide training to our partners on the importance of testing and to provide presentations to educate the community on the work that we do.

I take pride in the work that I do to promote and educate individuals on what it means to be involved in public health laboratory work and that environmental health is a critical component of that work.  I enjoy coming to work at such a rewarding place every day.


No responses yet

Scientist? Actress? Or President?

April 20-26 is Laboratory Professionals Week! This year APHL is focusing on environmental health and the laboratorians who work to detect the presence of contaminants in both people and in the environment.  This post is part of a series.


By Laurie Peterson-Wright, Chemistry Program Manager, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Who would have known that the 1973 fifth grade class of Beadle Elementary in Yankton, South Dakota could predict the future?  As a classroom exercise, we all had to vote on what we would each be when we grew up.  I received 10 votes to become an actress, 10 votes to become a scientist and even one vote to be the first woman president!

Scientist? Actress? Or President? |

My parents were adamant that I finish every project, class, book, craft or book I started.  This instilled within me a commitment to never quit and a sense of wonderment at where the next bit of knowledge and hard work would take me. My passion for any type of science began at a young age.  I would stay glued to my microscope or my telescope at night.  I wanted to learn everything about how humans and the universe operated.  I had so many educational ambitions – teaching, mathematician, certified public accountant, physicist, medical doctor, astronaut (and let us not forget Hollywood Star) – but after many years in school, I reeled my focus in to chemistry, mathematics and business administration.

My first position was in cancer research, but I was shortly introduced to environmental chemistry and project management.   I was intrigued by how chemical and radiological pollutants interacted with the environment and what we could do to mitigate exposure, especially for sensitive populations.  I spent 15 years in the environmental remediation/waste management field and then accepted a position with the State of Colorado Chemistry Program in 2001.  Immediately I embraced public health and how these same contaminants in the environment could be so easily transported.  I was fascinated by how they interacted with the human body including sensitive human and animal endocrine systems.

This world is an amazing place! By continuing to focus on my passion in public health, I will only increase my knowledge of how all sensitive systems are interconnected.  Live gently, and also boldly, my fellow scientists.

Oh, and by the way….I still act…and PS don’t tell my parents I never finished Moby Dick.


One response so far

Where are they Now? APHL/CDC Emerging Infectious Disease Fellow Looks Back

Apr 10 2014 :: Published in Workforce & Professional Development

By Laura Siegel, Specialist, NCPHLL

It’s fellowship season at APHL! Last month we received over 315 applications for the 2014-2015 class of EID fellows. As the review committee evaluates this year’s applicants, let’s take a look back and see what members of last year’s class are up to.

“It boggled my mind that there are invisible little creatures that can infect you. The fact that you can’t even see them with the naked eye – and they’re crawling all over you, is fascinating,” said Kayleigh Jennings, PulseNet Specialist and Biological Scientist III, at the Florida Department of Health- Bureau of Public Health Laboratories in Tampa, Florida.

By the time Kayleigh hit middle school, she knew she was interested with science, and ever since that first microbiology lesson, her interest never faltered.

Where are they Now? Looking Back at Class of the 18 EID Fellowship: Kayleigh Jennings |

Kayleigh attended the Ohio State University where she majored in Microbiology and minored in Public Health. In her third year at school, she worked at a research facility alongside Michelle Landes, a student who had just received her acceptance into Class 17 of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Fellowship Program. Michelle discussed the program with Kayleigh and encouraged her to apply for Class 18. Kayleigh was so excited about the opportunity she completed the application nearly a year before it was due.

Ten months later, she packed up her life into her small sedan and made the trek from Ohio to sunny Florida to start her dream job as an EID fellow.  Florida was high on Kayleigh’s list not just for its sunny weather, but because her host laboratory, the Florida Department of Health, allowed her to rotate through all the various departments within the lab. This flexibility led her to discover what she enjoyed doing most – working with Salmonella outbreak surveillance using pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and PulseNet – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national network connecting cases of foodborne illness to detect outbreaks.

“Analyzing Salmonella – I felt like I was doing something important,” said Kayleigh. “It’s gratifying — I’ve seen a series of DNA patterns that are exactly the same, which means they could be a cluster contributing to an outbreak.  I’ve had times where I’ve had to make a phone call to the epidemiologist, and say ‘You should take a look at this…”

One day Kayleigh was glad she didn’t have to make that call; the day she came across one of the most virulent Salmonella strains she had ever seen.

“An 18 year old boy originally from Nigeria came to a local ER soon after he presented with symptoms, and passed away a few hours later. The medical examiner routinely sends cultures to the Clinical Microbiology Department at the Department of Health for analysis, and it was determined to be an atypical septicemic Salmonella infection.  Since the Salmonella was isolated, the sample was then sent to our PFGE laboratory, and thus landed in my hands.” said Kayleigh.

After running PFGE, uploading the pattern to the appropriate databases, and sending the sample to the CDC for further verification, it was quickly determined that it was a rare strain, not typically endemic to the U.S. Thankfully, this particular strain posed little risk to the rest of the population.

While death from Salmonella is rare, foodborne illnesses are quite common and can make individuals very ill without proper treatment. With more than 48 million people in the US acquiring foodborne illnesses each year, food surveillance systems and the laboratory professionals that support them are critical.

“Foodborne illnesses are not going away anytime soon. If someone is sick, you want to know if that strain is contributing to an outbreak. If there was no PFGE or food safety… an outbreak could be spreading rampant and no one would know.”

Other highlights from Kayleigh’s fellowship include working in a BSL-3 laboratory for the first time, touring the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, GA, and training at the local county health department.

“I never would have had any of these life-changing experiences if not for this fellowship,” she said.

When asked about her future plans, she said, “Will I stay in public health? Definitely — I don’t even know what else I would do,” she joked.  “I enjoy helping, and I like the feeling that what I do matters.

Stay tuned for more posts on past EID fellows!

2 responses so far

HIV Testing Where Ice Melts Fast: EID Fellow Reports from Botswana

Mar 26 2014 :: Published in Workforce & Professional Development

By R. Suzanne Beard, PhD, Emerging Infectious Disease Research Fellow

Dried blood spots (DBS), drops of blood collected to screen newborns for congenital disorders, are the wave of the future for HIV testing of all sorts; at least that is what I am trying to prove during my Emerging Infectious Disease Research Fellowship. How am I doing this, you ask? Great question! I am helping design studies to evaluate filter papers from different manufacturers for viral load testing and drug resistance genotyping in resource-limited settings.

As antiretroviral treatment expands in resource-limited areas, so does the need to complete testing quickly. The problem is that plasma – to date the gold standard in HIV testing — requires separation from whole blood, and then it needs to be frozen and kept that way until testing. This leads to the need for cold chain transport in places that may not have stable electricity or the infrastructure to maintain freezers. And all this in a place that makes summer in the south look refreshing. Trust me, if you order an ice water in Botswana in November, the ice doesn’t last very long, and the same thing goes for ice in a cooler with specimens.

HIV Testing Where Ice Melts Fast: EID Fellow Reports from Botswana |

In the year since I started working with HIV, I have discovered that much of the research with DBS does not consider conditions in resource-limited settings, as a result, when protocols are implemented in these areas, the impact on patient care may not be as profound as it could or should be. My team is working to produce quality research that takes this into account and actually conducts the work in areas where cold chain transport isn’t an easy, inexpensive option.

I spent a month in Botswana initiating a protocol to investigate the usefulness of three DBS filter paper cards to evaluate viral loads, and in those failing treatment, the prevalence of HIV drug resistance in pediatric patients on anti-retroviral therapies (ART). As with every protocol, what you dream up sitting in your cubicle, doesn’t always account for the issues you find on the ground during implementation. It took almost two weeks before specimen collection could begin. In the meantime, we amended the protocol to speed up specimen collection and added a collaborator (Baylor Pediatric Clinic). The key to a successful trip to a new country is to be flexible and focus on the unique assets in front of you!

I also assisted in troubleshooting several assays in use at the Ministry of Health and CDC-Botswana labs. The opportunity to do technology transfer and troubleshooting is one of the things I like best about traveling to labs in other countries. Each new lab represents a completely different set of obstacles and challenges, even if those labs are right across the street from each other. On this trip, I was working to transfer a new, more cost-effective in-house HIV drug resistance genotyping test.  I had a great time working together with all of the technicians. We modified the protocols to fit what they had available to them and worked on sequencing analysis. After a couple of days, they felt more confident in their own abilities.

My final job was to visit clinics around Gaborone (the capital) and Francistown (the second largest city) to collect information on ART enrollment for an upcoming protocol with the Ministry of Health. After database issues delayed efforts to collect numbers needed to determine how many clinics should be established in the region, we decided to tackle the problem in a low tech fashion.  With the approval of the Ministry of Health, we spent several days visiting clinics. This gave me a chance to get to know the country a bit better and to interact with nurses, doctors and other community health support staff who work on the front lines of the HIV pandemic.

If we are to have a chance at achieving an AIDS free generation, we must collaborate to build capacity in labs and clinics through training and access to inexpensive specimen collection and testing. This capacity isn’t just useful in far-off, exotic places; everything we do is applicable here at home. During emergencies when power is down for long periods of time — think Katrina or Super Storm Sandy — DBS technology can keep key public health initiatives on track.

I look forward to returning to Botswana to continue working with my colleagues to transfer technology and expand use of DBS.

No responses yet

Life After the Military: Consider a Career in Public Health

Jan 28 2014 :: Published in Workforce & Professional Development

By A. Christian Whelen, PhD, D(ABMM), State Laboratories Director, Hawaii Department of Health

Life After the Military: Consider a Career in Public Health |

Aloha from the fiftieth state. Almost eight years ago, I hung up my uniform and joined the Hawaii Health Department as their State Lab Director, and the job fit like a glove. Like other military laboratorians, I was accustomed to working on the front line of patient care, research, biodefense, and battlefield support, so joining states’ efforts to protect the nation’s health was a natural transition.

What’s a Public Health Laboratory?

Public health laboratories, governmental institutions at the federal, state or local level, perform detection and surveillance to protect public health and safety. They conduct a spectrum of tests that varies by institution. Tests may include molecular testing for respiratory or enteric disease, drug resistance testing of TB, direct support to sexually transmitted disease control programs, DNA fingerprinting and sequence analysis, newborn screening for metabolic and genetic disorders, and examining an environmental sample for anthrax.  Public health laboratories also perform regulatory functions, such as licensing clinical laboratory personnel and certifying laboratories to perform drinking water or substance abuse testing.

State environmental laboratories, which may operate as a section within a public health laboratory or as a separate entity, offer another employment target for those seeking to make a transition from military life. These laboratories monitor compliance with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and test recreational waters and food products for chemical or microbial contamination.

Public Health Laboratory Jobs and How to Find Them

Public health laboratories employ clinical laboratory scientists, microbiologists, chemists, molecular biologists, researchers, lab assistants, medical laboratory technicians and other laboratorians with levels of education from associate degrees to doctorates. Go to Lab Science Careers for an interactive tool. that shows job titles with corresponding salaries and read this brochure published by APHL’s National Center for Public Health Laboratory Leadership. Because government positions are not always easy to find on state and local government websites, it may be helpful to contact local public health laboratory directors or section supervisors directly.

The Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) is a vibrant organization that supports and advocates for the role of governmental health laboratories in advancing global health. For those active in SAFMLS (I’m a past president), there are ample opportunities to participate as a member of APHL (I am currently a member of the Board of Directors, Preparedness and Response Committee, and Nominating Committee). Of note, APHL also sponsors a Job Center with services for job seekers and employers both. Job seekers can review position listings, post their resume anonymously and receive alerts about job announcements.

For more information about the Hawaii State Labs, read the state laboratory profile in Lab Matters, APHL’s quarterly magazine. or visit our website:  Peruse back issues of Lab Matters for information about public health laboratories in the area where you plan to live after completing your service to this great country. A hui hou (until we meet again).

This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Scope. This blog post was re-published with their permission.

No responses yet

Public Health Laboratory Internship: Keeping an Eye Out for Drug-Resistant Influenza

Jan 14 2014 :: Published in Workforce & Professional Development

By Nikeshan Jeyakumar, PHASE Intern, Laboratories Division of Virology and Immunology, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Public Health Laboratory Internship: Keeping an Eye Out for Drug-Resistant Influenza |

Public health as a discipline derives its importance from its direct positive impact on society. Unlike some fields of study that can remain relevant while being entirely theoretical, public health is entirely dependent on the application of its fundamental principles to real-world situations. Given this reality, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) has been taking a forward approach in offering its students a unique opportunity to utilize their education. Now in its tenth year, Public Health Applications for Student Experience (PHASE) internships at JHSPH have enabled students to supplement their education with practical experience. Students can choose from a wide range of internships that span the breadth of public health work and help them develop connections within the greater Baltimore community as well as network with public health professionals. The PHASE internships allow students to enhance their education by taking them out of the classroom and into the field, or in my case, into the Maryland State Public Health Laboratory.

I was a PHASE intern at the Laboratories Division of Virology and Immunology at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore from January to June 2013. One of our primary roles as a public health laboratory is to receive samples containing suspected microbial pathogens and conduct diagnostic and surveillance testing in order to characterize such samples. We would then report our results to the submitters, the local government, and to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As an intern, I was able to participate in a study that evaluated assays for detecting influenza susceptibility to a class of antiviral drugs termed neuraminidase inhibitors. This was part of a larger effort by our laboratory to conduct a surveillance campaign of drug resistance levels in circulating influenza strains during the 2012-2013 flu season. We used an inhibition assay that detects the activity of neuraminidase (NA), a surface protein that facilitates the release of influenza viruses from host cells so that they can travel to other cells and establish new infections. The assay contains a substrate which interacts with influenza NA and quantifies its activity by emitting light in proportion to the amount of activity detected. The quantity of drug required to knock down NA activity to 50% of baseline levels (known as the inhibitory concentration or IC50 value) was then obtained using a CDC-developed computer program that converts the light output data to IC50 values. From this information, we were able to determine the susceptibility of viruses to the three NA inhibitor drugs used in hospitals and clinics worldwide. High levels of NA activity (as measured against standard control levels established by the CDC) in the presence of inhibitor drugs is a strong indicator of resistance.

Seasonal influenza strains are resistant to the entire class of drugs termed adamantanes, which were the first drugs developed against influenza. As a result, doctors really only have three options to cure influenza infections: the inhalable drugs oseltamivir (TamifluTM) and zanamivir (RelenzaTM), and the last-resort intravenous drug peramivir, which is still in investigational stages. The development of widespread resistance to any of these drugs would cripple our ability to treat influenza in clinical settings, so it is essential for us to keep an eye on these viruses and their susceptibility to our pharmaceutical arsenal. One only needs to look at the rise in MRSA and CRE-related fatalities to realize how vulnerable we are as a population to drug-resistant pathogens. Happily, with the flu season coming to a close in May our lab did not detect any phenotypically resistant strains despite only a moderately-effective vaccine and a high number of infections due to a dominant circulating H3N2 strain, which in the past has been responsible for more severe disease outbreaks.

This project has been a wonderful application of my graduate education in microbiology at JHSPH to a real-life public health issue of great importance. It really illustrates the significance of why we have to understand infectious diseases in such detail in order to curb their effects on society. In addition to exposing me to the laboratory aspect of public health, the PHASE internship has also allowed me to network with professionals in the laboratory field and develop a set of connections that will be a tremendous asset in the future. The staff at the Maryland state laboratory is composed of a highly professional group of individuals that work very effectively together in order to carry out their numerous shared responsibilities. The laboratory personnel are particularly well-experienced in clinical virology and are extremely capable and proficient workers when their services are in high demand. This was most evident during the peak of the influenza season in January 2013 when we were inundated with an enormous amount of hospital samples that all had to be confirmed or disconfirmed for influenza infection. Every sample was processed efficiently and in a reasonable timeframe due to the professionalism and hard work of the staff. Dr. Maria Paz Carlos, the chief of the Division of Virology and Immunology, is also very involved in the work of all of the laboratories she manages and is always in constant communication with the rest of the staff and us, the interns. As a result, she has established a collaborative environment in that is extremely conducive to a team-based approach to problem-solving.

I highly encourage anybody attending JHSPH to take full advantage of this unique opportunity offered by the PHASE program. Public health laboratory internships can be a greatly enriching educational experience for students who spend so much time learning concepts and skills in the classroom to actually apply them in a hands-on setting. I would also advocate that other schools of public health collaborate with local and state public health laboratory departments to develop similar programs throughout the country. Engaging public health students and professionals in real-world settings is essential to the proper design and implementation of public health practices and policies from the local to the global scale.

No responses yet

Are Girls Being Nipped in the STEM?

Dec 11 2013 :: Published in General, Workforce & Professional Development

By Rohini G. Sandesara, APHL/CDC Training Fellow, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NCEZID, DVBD, Dengue Branch, Molecular Diagnostics and Research Laboratory

Are Girls Being Nipped in the STEM? |

On October 1, 2013 the US federal government shut down and with it hundreds of thousands of people were not allowed to work by law, including myself.  As a result, I spent an obscene amount of time on the internet reading about almost everything.  Something that caught my attention were a few websites talking about Ada Lovelace because a day to celebrate her was approaching.  I was happy to see her getting some publicity and wanted to see her being recognized for two things:  1) she was an intelligent woman and 2) she was the first computer programmer EVER.  Unfortunately, her day came and went and I was sorely disappointed in the minimal exposure she got; I had to dig into women-focused websites to find blurbs about her.

During this time I also noticed a lot of articles about federal departments that were forced to close.  I saw a fair amount of light being shed on the sciences and how these agencies were handling the shutdown.  Even the research being done in Antarctica got a decent amount of coverage.  There were stories of what was going to happen to the animals used in the research that had come to a halt, the inability of NIH to accept new patients into clinical trials, the CDC unable to do proper influenza surveillance right at the start of flu season, the FDA not being able to inspect imported food… the list goes on.  So on October 15, 2013, an internationally recognized day to celebrate Ada Lovelace, I was surprised that more people did not take advantage of these circumstances to advocate for the STEM fields at all, let alone women specifically by using Lovelace as an example.  On the one hand there was a lot of talk about what these shuttered federal agencies do, yet on the other hand, a great opportunity to encourage investment, time and support for these fields was passed by.

As a female scientist, I would love to increase the number of women in these crucial fields of study by using opportunities that are already available.  The internet makes the world a very small place and there is no reason not to use it to advocate for women in these areas.  Missed opportunities like Ada Lovelace Day are rampant and inexcusable.  Companies and organizations with wide nets cast all over the world through marketing and consumerism have the best resources to encourage girls from a young age to pursue the STEM fields, but they choose not to.

LEGO regularly has a computer engineer whose bio reads “In his spare time, he programs his own video games, catches up on the latest posts in his favorite web forums, and hangs out with his pet robo-cat.”  They now also have a female scientist who will “…spend all night in her lab analyzing how to connect bricks of different sizes and shapes…”  Neither of these character descriptions help to dispel stereotypes of people on these career paths.  This alone is enough to push young girls away from STEM fields, because they may identify being a scientist with not having a life outside of lab or a computer programmer as someone who is socially isolated.  TV shows and movies also advocate for this thinking by showcasing the idea that scientists’ work is the focus of their lives.  This could not be further from the truth. There are plenty of scientists who exhibit just as much passion for their work as they do for hobbies and interests outside of work.

We need to expose the public to real people in these fields by getting the word out there about who they are, what they do and why they do it.  UNESCO recently formed a scientific advisory board consisting of scientists from all over the world to help influence policy.  A solid 50% of them are women; however, neither the formation of this board nor the gender makeup of it was widely circulated in the media.   This should have been news-worthy because it is important for people to see the positions these women have and show what scientists actually do rather than the fictional representations that are often projected on us.

Without understanding of what STEM fields entail, it is no surprise that there a skill shortage is forecast in many of these sectors.  Without the active dissolution of stereotypes in these fields, we are knowingly pushing away brilliant minds and studies show they tend to be female. (See these studies: 1, 2, and 3.) There is no one type of person that goes on to study physics, become a biomedical engineer, develop software or build robots.  Many different people pursue these fields; that is why we see progress in them.

Ada Lovelace was a pioneer for women and kickstarted the technology saturated world we use every day without a second thought.  Her day of recognition coincided with a time when people were becoming more knowledgeable about STEM fields, yet her accomplishments were not leveraged to their fullest potential.  We should be using the opportunities we have at our fingertips to advance knowledge about STEM fields so that we do not give the wrong impression of what goes on inside these worlds.  These are the fields that directly influence our daily lives without most of us even knowing how.

About Ronini: Through a fellowship run by the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), I am currently working in the Molecular Diagnostics and Research Laboratory in the Dengue Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I am passionate about scientific research, cutting edge technology, photography, expanding my culinary skills and travelling.  Living in Puerto Rico for this fellowship is also exposing me to much more island life than growing up in New Jersey ever did, and I can’t really complain about that!

No responses yet

A Public Health Scientist’s Series of Fortunate Events

Nov 14 2013 :: Published in Workforce & Professional Development

By Bonnie Rubin, Associate Director, State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa

A Public Health Scientist’s Series of Fortunate Events |

I trained as a clinical laboratory scientist, or medical technologist as it was called when I graduated back in the day. I thought it would be neat to work in a zoo laboratory but my application to the St. Louis Zoo did not even warrant a phone interview. So, I found my first job in a private reference laboratory where the majority of samples were received via the United States postal system. You can imagine what the summer heat did to the white cells in blood sent for complete blood counts and differentials (exploded them!) and to the bacteria in the employee urine samples (exploded them too!). Since I didn’t think the quality of the laboratory was quite up to par, I left after working there for three months to work in a clinical laboratory in a brand new hospital. The laboratory oversight and management was actually outsourced to a (another) large private reference laboratory 100 miles away, BUT the quality requirements were what I had been trained to expect. Believe it or not, I became the manager of the laboratory after 3 months – by default, I think. However, after one year, it was time to move out of my hometown and get a life of my own.

I accepted a position at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Clinical Chemistry in the Department of Pathology and my career in laboratory medicine truly started. I worked as a bench tech for several years. There, I had the opportunity to become the supervisor and creator of the Critical Care Laboratory concept and operations; worked part-time and got my master’s degrees in the dual-program for healthcare administration and business administration; did an internship in pathology; and then was hired to be the executive administrator of the clinical and anatomic laboratories, pathology education and research labs (over 500 FTEs). During that time, I was tagged to lead a reorganization effort for the entire clinical and anatomic laboratory operations to make us more agile and flexible in responding to healthcare changes – this was during the Clinton Administration. We reduced laboratory units from 32 to six sections, and the number of supervisors from 24 to six. Needless to say, this was a major undertaking. During the month prior to full implementation, I was on maternity leave with our second son. I was very busy.

A few years after the reorganization, I was approached by a former colleague to apply for a general manager position at a start-up genomic discovery and biorepository company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was to be an “offer I couldn’t refuse.” So, we moved to Tewksbury, Massachusetts and I discovered what it was like to spend two hours driving twenty miles to work. Although we were only in MA for two years, the experience I gained in the private sector and the personal experiences that I and my family had while there were priceless – we have never regretted that decision.

We moved back to Iowa City in 2002, which is when public health and my career intersected. The State Hygienic Laboratory was advertising for a terrorism response coordinator and I was looking for a new adventure. Fortunately for me, the interview committee (which included Dr. Mary Gilchrist and Dr. Michael Pentella) offered me the opportunity to develop a robust emergency response program and ultimately provide me with many national, state and local opportunities as a public health professional. As response coordinator, I got to meet a LOT of new friends and colleagues in disciplines I NEVER would have if I had stayed in clinical or private laboratories. I have to admit I was intimidated when I first met the commander and staff of our 71st Civil Support Team. Having them to my house for burgers and beer, made our partnership even more solid and dependable.

Since 2009, I have been the Associate Director for Administrative Services. I oversee the non-analytical areas of the laboratory (finance, central accessioning, education and training, quality assurance, supply chain management, facilities and security). This phase of my career has definitely been exciting and sometimes daunting. Business theory indicates (Harvard Business Review, one of my favorite journals) that hospitals tend to be 10 years behind for-profit technology and processes. I believe public health is about 20 years behind, with the primary cause being lack of cash to build and maintain our business infrastructures. It has been quite the journey to identify, justify and implement new financial software, budgeting systems, test costing calculations and introducing staff to the concepts of process improvement in our customer delivery systems. Yes, quality assurance and control is not just for technical laboratory staff to use to improve what we do. The challenge, long hours and frustrations have been worth it. Our laboratory has a long way to go, but we are definitely on the right track and moving forward.

Being in public health has allowed me to become the best leader I can be. I have had the opportunity to work with national healthcare leaders, statewide leaders, and some of the best intellects in public and environmental science – opportunities I NEVER would have had in any other job. I am involved in policy making, new organizational models and processes – making a difference not only in my own Iowan community but also in the whole world of public and environmental health. I get to work outside the laboratory, recently being President of the Iowa Public Health Association, involved in the state’s STEM initiative, being a member of the Iowa Environmental Health Association and of course, being actively involved with the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

This series of fortunate events led me to where I am now at the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa – and I wouldn’t change a thing.

No responses yet

Older posts »