Serendipity and Unsung Heroes

This week is National Public Health Week!  APHL will be posting stories from staff on our blog all week.  However, these aren’t your typical public health stories.  They aren’t from our program staff or the folks working in the laboratories; they are from staff whose jobs could be done anywhere for any type of organization yet they choose to work in public health.  Their journeys to public health are unique, but what keeps them here is quite similar.  


By Pandora Ray, Director of the National Center for Public Health Laboratory Leadership, APHL

My favorite interview question is, “so which do you prefer most…working with people or working with things?”  I was first asked this question as a teenager; I stumbled for a moment and finally answered, “yes”.  When asked to explain, I talked about how odd it seemed to have to choose between them.  If I said people, I was steered to human resources, teaching, and social work; all that liberal artsy kind of stuff.  If I said things, my educational coaching led to discussion of science, math and IT.   At the time I wasn’t clear enough in my thinking to voice my discomfort.  Instead I plodded along unconsciously balancing between the two, ultimately settling on social science thinking that I could be a lawyer, a professor, or a business executive.  The choices I made seemed logical at the time.

Pandora Ray But as it turns out, I wasn’t really making choices in what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Instead I was riding the current, doing what came naturally, if not more easily, to me.  I had aspirations to be successful in a career, make my parents proud, secure more than a middle class wage, and live the dream.

To be honest, my “living the dream” felt hollow as I crested the wave.  I kept thinking there ought to be more; if not to the dream, at least to my experience of it.  I was working with people and things but in a mechanical way rather than meaningful way.  The results of my work improved things, but the value to people was less tangible.  Something was missing.

Like nearly everyone I know in public health, particularly public health laboratory science, I discovered it through serendipity.  I was in a music class sitting next to a stranger.  After introduction, this stranger turned out to be an associate dean from the school of public health in my hometown 3,000 miles away, and suggested that I might consider a career in public health.  I asked, “public health?  What’s that?”

Six months later I was working at APHL in the best job ever, working with people and working with things to make a difference in the lives and the health of our communities.  What’s the missing piece?  It’s work that connects me to people and things that can mean the difference between life and death.  It’s the opportunity to affect social issues beyond the walls of an institution or private organization.  It’s the active engagement in work that directly impacts the health and well being of not just individuals but of communities.

I do something different every day.

I visit laboratories across the country and talk to the people serving behind the scenes to identify new disease outbreaks, contamination in our food supply, tracking disease and following trends, and identifying other threats to the public.

They tell me about the challenges they face balancing the needs of the public against the depletion of resources to meet them.

I hear firsthand the stories of how a baby’s life was saved through an analysis of a blood specimen.

I work with the front line leaders asking questions about workflow and process.  I seek them out asking why they do what they do, what they like about it, and what they wish could be different.  I ask “why” a lot.

I practice leadership and management skills with the goal of getting people to think differently and innovatively about their approach to problems.  I work with them to help them be strong managers, positioning them for long term leadership roles in laboratories.

I’m grateful to have found a path that fulfills my aspiration to make a difference in the world I live in.  But even more, I’m grateful to those unsung heroes and heroines who have chartered their own accidental paths into public health laboratory science and the laboratories around us.   Their real time scientific work of testing and discovery make my life safer, healthier and richer.  I salute them.

And if I could do it over, I’d become one of them.


More stories from APHL staff for National Public Health Week:


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