What Exactly Do I Do? I Work For You.

 By Sarah N. Buss, CDC / APHL Emerging Infectious Disease Research Fellow, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health

After returning from both the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) general meeting in New Orleans and APHL’s annual conference in Omaha, I was exhausted. More importantly, because I was at these meetings I had not helped move our household across the Hudson River, and I was in trouble with my family! Luckily, both conferences left me well prepared to answer my husband when he scoffed: “Just what were you doing at your meetings anyway?” In fact, I had been thinking about the answer to that question since hearing Mary Woolley, President of Research!America, talk about science advocacy at the ASM meeting. Mary told us that scientists are almost invisible to the general public. In a 2011 survey, 66% of Americans could not name a living scientist and 62% could not identify the CDC as the US government agency whose primary mission is disease prevention and health promotion. While I’m hopeful that my husband would be able to answer those questions, I’m not sure he could describe what I do for the New York State Department of Health.  

At the ASM meeting, Mary encouraged us to convey that “I work for you” when asked what we do by non-scientists. During the APHL meeting, I heard Mary’s words echoed in every session. OK not literally. But perhaps nowhere do scientists “work for you” more than in our nation’s public health laboratories. Afterall, we inform and confirm clinical diagnoses by testing patient specimens typically by using tests that are not available in hospitals or commercial laboratories; we detect, investigate and help to control outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and other deadly diseases; and we handle the colossal job that is newborn screening…to name only the first three tasks that come to mind. It’s no wonder the Lt. Governor of Nebraska, Rich Sheehy, said that we help maintain “the good life” in his state and Dr. Alexander Garza, the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Homeland Security, reminded us that we are vital to national security. We directly impact the nation’s health.

Given the current fiscal climate, advocacy and transparency have never been more important to the future of the laboratories that keep us healthy (and employed, in my case). During APHL’s Katherine Kelley Distinguished Lecture, Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes explained that communities could influence and inspire governments to improve population health. As health scientists, we must then work to inspire both our communities and our government to invest in disease prevention. At APHL’s Plenary Session, Robert Pestronk, executive director of NACCHO, encouraged us to tell the stories of how public health labs impact the lives of communities. I know those stories are inspiring.

Considering the perspective I obtained over the past few weeks, I quickly told my husband that, “We were talking about you! You know, how we can better and more efficiently serve you with our dwindling resources.” Then I proceeded to tell him about some of my favorite ideas and technologies that I heard about at the APHL meeting in a way that emphasized the health impacts and in terms a non-scientist could understand.

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