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7 Public Health Lab Professionals Describe Why They Started in Lab Science—and What Makes Them Stay

Photos of seven individuals who work in public health laboratories.

By Donna Campisano, specialist, Communications, APHL

Preparing specimens. Identifying pathogens. Detecting outbreaks.

Working in a public health laboratory isn’t always pretty, but according to the lab professionals we talked with, it is incredibly important and rewarding.

“The tests we do to detect sexually transmitted infections, elevated blood lead levels, tuberculosis, COVID-19, arboviruses and tick-borne pathogens as well as contaminated recreational water make a difference every day in reducing exposure to or limiting the spread of infectious diseases,” said Leslie Wolf, Ph.D., laboratory technical director at the Louisville Department of Public Health & Wellness. “I believe this is core public health—knowing the risks in your community and finding solutions with community partners and collaborators to identify solutions to improve health.”

So, what got public health lab professionals like Wolf interested in lab science? And—more importantly—what keeps them dedicated to their jobs? What do they love about their work and what have their challenges been? In celebration of Lab Week, we asked seven lab scientists for their insights. This is what they had to say.

Mary Bonifas, quality assurance section manager, Bureau of Laboratories, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services:

“I worked on multiple projects with graduate students during my undergrad years, doing things like videotaping snails, tracking mice movements around barns and extracting and examining stomach contents of fish. The projects I enjoyed the most involved laboratory work, but I didn’t explore it. I thought the only career path for laboratory work was in a hospital setting. Although I enjoyed the lab, I stubbornly stuck with my zoology major, which I had decided on around the fourth grade. As fate would have it, my first ‘real science job’ happened to be in a commercial testing laboratory. I say fate because I just happened to be ready to get a job using that science degree, just happened to see that job posting and it just happened to be with a company that likes to hire new graduates. Within a few weeks of starting, I was hooked. The work was structured and organized, and the flow made perfect sense to my brain. I loved everything about it.”

Bernadette Matthis, laboratory director, Bureau of Laboratories, Philadelphia Department of Public Health:

“I love the mission of the work we do. We support the Philadelphia Health Department Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) that offer medical and laboratory services for those who are uninsured or underinsured, providing health equity to all our communities. We also provide STD testing so people can know their status and stay healthy. Our lab does surveillance work, so epidemiologists can know if there’s an outbreak of a particular infection circulating in the city. I love the fact that our lab is an important piece of a patient’s chart and that we’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

David Alejandro Silva, quality manager, Public Health Laboratory, Dallas County Health and Human Services:

“I’m exceedingly proud of all the remarkable growth my home public health lab has undergone over the years. I witnessed the resilience of our staff in response to the sustained stress of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Even in the heart of all that madness, we finally became a modern laboratory when we deployed our first-ever laboratory information management system (LIMS) that profoundly augmented our capabilities. Construction has begun on our new three-story laboratory; already, we have plans for new services, including the addition of a chemistry program. And even now, we are early adopters of incorporating generative AI in our day-to-day work and continue to look for more exciting applications. It has been, and continues to be, an exciting and deeply rewarding place to work.”

Ivan Dudik, IT liaison, Public Health Laboratory Division, Texas Department of State Health Services:

“If you’re interested in public health lab work, do it! It might not pay as well as other opportunities, but it is very fulfilling. It’s one of the few fields outside of first responders where you can see how your work helps save lives and improves patient outcomes. It’s excellent work for those seeking a team-oriented field that gives you room to become an expert. For those seeking laboratory informatics, I can tell you true that you will never be bored, and the work will always be challenging and fresh!”

Leslie Wolf, laboratory technical director, Louisville Department of Public Health & Wellness:

“One of the biggest challenges of my job is being prepared for the next big thing in public health. I have to predict what equipment the lab will need. Is what we currently use suitable? Will it have dual use? Will I have enough staff with the skills needed? What funding might be available? What partnerships can we develop locally to be prepared for current and future health issues? Being a visionary is not my strong suit, but APHL certainly helps me by providing critical information as fast as possible!” 

Andrew Cannons, laboratory director, Bureau of Public Health Laboratories – Tampa, Florida Department of Health:

“What I love the most about my job is the staff—they’re always ready to step up and meet the challenge! Staff are the most valuable resource.”

Brendan Reilly, manager, Laboratory LIMS and Informatics Group, Public Health Laboratory Division,  Texas Department of State Health Services:

“I had a degree in biochemistry but started working in the private sector in an IT job. And I really found myself not happy. A for-profit company just wasn’t a good fit for me, so I started looking for opportunities where I could use my science degree—and I stumbled upon public health laboratories. Ultimately, it all worked out. I found I really enjoyed going to work knowing I was contributing to more than just some private company’s bottom line.”

How can you explore public health laboratory careers or support those who are interested?

APHL offers students, early-career lab professionals and established public health laboratory scientists a variety of ways to explore careers in—and expand their knowledge of—public health laboratory work. As an organization, we offer professional development courses, webinars, symposiums, conferences and more. Additionally, the Career Pathways in Public Health Laboratory Science: an APHL-CDC Initiative includes the Public Health Laboratory Fellowship Program and the Public Health Laboratory Internship Program. Both programs are offer exciting opportunities for participants and for mentors!

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