By Rana Rahmat, specialist, Laboratory Response Network, APHL
After the public health emergencies of the last several years, it would be quite easy for anyone in this field, particularly laboratory scientists, to find themselves jaded about the field. As someone who worked in a laboratory for years and felt that stress, I thought I was beyond the excitement of seeing public health laboratory work.
I was wrong. And I’ve never been happier for it.
As part of APHL’s Public Health Preparedness and Response team, new team members visit one of our member public health laboratories to see, experience and learn about how the laboratories operate and the different types of work they do. How can we help support their mission if we don’t understand what they do, how they do it and why they do it? As the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) specialist, I’ve mostly worked with the bioterrorism units at public health laboratories with very little exposure to other departments. I didn’t even have a general knowledge of the types of work other parts of the lab did, nor did I know or understand the work. Visiting a public health laboratory was the perfect opportunity to change that.
For my visit, I had the opportunity to visit the New York State Department of Health Wadsworth Center for a few days to tour and spend time with staff members. In those few days I transformed from the jaded scientist back to the young kid who thought science was so awesome and wanted to know everything about how the tests and instruments worked. At Wadsworth, I was in the perfect place to feed that reignited curiosity.
My first day was spent with the biodefense team who I work with the most as that section performs the laboratory’s LRN functions. One mock test later – shortened from its usual eight hour run time, of course – and the previously intimidating number of steps on the protocols didn’t seem so daunting anymore. The morning concluded with a tour of the biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) space, which is relatively small for the sheer number of instruments it needs to house most of which are quite large.
My second day was cold and wet, but inside the lab I was happily overwhelmed with the amount of dedication I saw from every staff person. The morning started with a meeting at the Biggs Laboratory at Empire State Plaza with Dr. Patrick Parsons. What followed was a two-hour tour of the facility, exploring from room to room and hearing about all the incredible work done at this lab. The immense volume of testing was impressive and learning how it impacted aspects of everyday life and helped during crisis situations was something I never really considered until that day.
The afternoon was spent at the Griffin Laboratory, home of the Arbovirus and Rabies Laboratories. It was incredible to walk through the various lab spaces and see all the different stages of work while hearing about the research, routine surveillance and the constant new challenges they face. I didn’t even mind seeing the mosquitos feeding…even though it was right after lunch!
My second stop at the Griffin Laboratory was the Rabies Laboratory. It was definitely not a space for the squeamish! Hearing about the volume and types of specimens they process, and how much team effort it takes to efficiently run the lab was astounding. I hadn’t yet toured any lab spaces with active tests until I walked into the rabies specimen processing room. Right there in a biosafety cabinet was the head of an animal that had recently been processed for testing. It was just there for me to see and examine if I was willing to get close enough with proper PPE. There was no way I was going to say no to that regardless of the little time that had passed since lunch! Before I could even wrap my head around what I was doing, three more boxes were brought in and I again felt like a child thinking, “this is SO cool!” Dr. Davis then showed me microscope slides of positive and negative specimens that were prepared for me. They were beautiful, the bright green and red hues reminiscent of Christmas. That day ended with a tour of the animal biosafety level 3 (ABSL-3) space on site, which showcased a great deal of innovative systems developed for research.
The last day of the visit was at the David Axelrod Institute, visiting more departments to learn about their work, and to learn how they all come together to function as one public health lab. Each person and each department reaffirmed that it takes a lot of effort to run every aspect of the public health laboratory. I saw that every department is unique and vital to the mission, and that there is an overwhelming amount of work to be done every day.
One thing I saw in every individual I met was that regardless of their site, department or how long they have worked at Wadsworth, they all shared an incredible amount of passion for their work. The joy they felt in doing the research, performing the testing and sharing the innovation their jobs was palpable despite how tiring it must have been with COVID-19, mpox and the many other public health events of the last several years.
Visiting Wadsworth didn’t just give me insight into how public health laboratories work, it also reminded me that laboratory science is still just as exciting to me as ever. It helped me realize that no matter how world-weary we get, how hard public health work is sometimes, it is work that’s worth doing. As for me? Who knows if I’ll ever go back to working in a lab, but it’s comforting to know that the spark of joy still exists.
There are quite a few people to whom I owe a great deal of gratitude for making this visit as incredible as it was: Christina Egan for approving it, Michael Perry for organizing every meeting and showing me the different locations, and Alex and Dominick from the biodefense team for showing me around the laboratory on the first day. I’d also like to give a massive thank you to the following people for taking time out of their day to speak with me: Patrick Parsons, Alex Ciota, April Davis, Corey Bennett, Lisa Mingle, Kara Mitchell, Bill Lee, Bill Wolfgang, Kim Musser, Sudha Chaturvedi, Vincent Escuyer, Meghan Fuschino, Linda Styer and Monica Parker. Thank you, thank you, thank you all for making this an unforgettable experience.
(Note: Though I wish I had more photos to commemorate this trip, I was so enraptured by the experience that I didn’t think to take pictures at any of the sites. I spent my time entirely focused on absorbing every detail around me, but sadly not on camera.)