Lab Culture Ep. 12: Bitten by the public health bug — How I found my lab niche

Lab Culture Ep. 12: Bitten by the public health bug -- How I found my lab niche |

The people who work in public health laboratories make a difference in your community daily. In this third episode, members of the Emerging Leader Program cohort 10 sit down with their peers to hear how their public health laboratory careers have made an impact.

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ELP cohort 10 members featured in this episode:


  • Degina Booker has been working in the public health lab for 40 years and is now the administrative services director for the Mississippi Public Health Lab.
  • Dr. Burton Wilcke, Jr., now retired, has worked in public health laboratories for over 35 years in Vermont, Michigan and California. Dr. Wilcke remains active in the public health laboratory community as a member of both the APHL Workforce Development Committee  and the Global Health Committee.
  • Dr. Musau WaKabongo, now retired, was the Public Health Laboratory Director at the Placer County Public Health Laboratory  and has worked in several public health laboratories in California for 13 years.
  • Dr. Maria Ishida has been working in public health for 11 years and is now the director of the New York State Food Laboratory.

Are you thinking about a career in a public health laboratory?

The post Lab Culture Ep. 12: Bitten by the public health bug — How I found my lab niche appeared first on APHL Lab Blog.

Moving from academia to public health: Did I make the right choice?

By Lixia Liu, PhD, MP (ASCP), D(ABMM), deputy director, Indiana Department of Health Laboratories

Lixia Liu is a member of APHL’s Emerging Leaders Program (Cohort 6). The group developed an educational website called That’s Sick! to introduce students and young scientists to the exciting world of public health laboratory careers.

In 1996 I completed my PhD in molecular biology and bacterial genetics, and later received postdoctoral training on bacterial pathogenesis. Among my peers, becoming a professor in an academic institution was the ultimate career goal; non-academic professions were considered to be less competitive. While I knew that this was the perception, I never gave it much thought as I later transitioned from academia to public health… That is, until I ran into an old acquaintance at the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) annual meeting.

She was a fellow student who worked at the same lab where I did my postdoctoral training. By that time, I had been away from academia and working in a public health laboratory for three years. We met up later that day to update each other on our recent endeavors. During our conversation, she paused for a moment and then asked with a sympathetic look on her face, “You are now working in a public health laboratory, not staying in academia?”

In the following days, I couldn’t erase that look from my mind. I began to question my decision and wondered if I made the wrong move in choosing public health laboratory science as my career. I began to think back about how I first stepped onto this career path.

After my postdoctoral training, I continued basic research in a new academic lab conducting a study on virulence-related genetic markers. I was also involved in method development for molecular diagnosis and a molecular epidemiological study of infections of cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. During this study, we found bacterial strains from two CF patients – one from the East coast and another from the West coast – with the same genetic fingerprints, which linked these two CF centers together. The transmission from one patient to the other occurred when one patient visited a camp attended by the other. Seeing how this bacterial strain moved and infected these patients caught my attention. This discovery was my first true exposure to the field of public health. I was intrigued.

Three years later, my husband was relocated for work so we moved from Michigan to Indiana. With my newfound interest in mind, I extended my job search to include public health. I came across a listing for a job that included molecular method development and molecular finger printing; it was a contractor position at the Indiana State Department of Health Laboratories. I pursued the opportunity and started my trial-run at the public health laboratory.

Although the method development and molecular epidemiological study of CF patients in the previous lab bridged the gap between academia and public health for me, the culture shock was still intense.

While academic research dives down deep to understand the fundamentals of a basic scientific mechanism (a vertical look at science), public health spans across disciplines to look for wide-reaching answers to real-life questions (a horizontal look at science).

In the public health lab, we seek answers to questions like: How severe is the flu season? Is a particular food product the cause of an outbreak or is it still safe for consumers? Is the drinking water safe to drink? To me, the most striking aspect of a public health laboratory is the impact generated by the test results. In clinical care, an individual patient’s sample may reveal the cause of their illness, their infection status or the reason that treatment has failed. In public health, aggregated results from multiple patients can reveal a trend, the health status of an entire community, a common link among infections or even the cause of an outbreak.

This trial-run introduced me to the field of public health laboratory science where I have stayed for 11 years because it is so fulfilling. I am now the deputy director of the Indiana State Department of Health Laboratories. One of my proudest moments was being a part of the team that detected MERS-CoV in Indiana, the first case in the US. While every situation isn’t as newsworthy, everything we do promotes public health and that is why I am glad to be here.

So while that question, “You are now working in a public health laboratory, not staying in academia?,” has come up again with friends, particularly among my former PhD classmates and postdocs, it doesn’t bother me anymore. If asked to choose again, I would still pursue this career path. I am proud of my choice and would encourage other scientists to consider this rewarding field.

APHL Coaching Initiative Spans Continents

By Michelle M. Forman, senior specialist, media, APHL

Andy Cannons was a member of APHL’s Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) Cohort III in 2011, an intensive year-long leadership development program for promising public health laboratory scientists. “It was a great program that gave me the tools I needed to become a better leader,” Andy shared. Once the program ended, he and his colleagues moved from the ELP program to the Network of Laboratory Leadership Alumni (NOLLA) where they could continue networking and seeking professional development opportunities.

APHL Coaching Initiative Spans Continents |

In 2014, the ELP program went global with its first cohort in Lesotho. As part of this new endeavor, NOLLA members in the US were invited to serve as coaches for program participants in Lesotho. Andy was one of those coaches. “I was hesitant at first – unsure of what I had to offer – but I agreed,” said Andy. “The general idea was that I would be paired with someone and would support them in working through day-to-day challenges faced in their laboratory.”

Andy was paired with Mokenyakenya Matoko, a national laboratory information systems officer in the Lesotho Ministry of Health. Despite some problems with video connection during their first Skype meeting, they were able to get to know each other a bit. “We discussed our backgrounds; how we got to where we are in our careers; our personality traits and leadership skills; and most importantly what Mokenyakenya was expecting from me as a coach,” explained Andy. “Thirty minutes into the meeting I concluded that Mokenyakenya and I were going to have a really good coaching experience.”

The two men met monthly via Skype, exchanging support and guidance. Mokenyakenya has worked on his communication skills, something he felt needed improvement. “Other important attribute that I have improved on is be myself. Though I am an introvert, I was advised try to take some leadership in most activities,” said Mokenyakenya. “I have learned that being an introvert it does not necessarily mean being shy and waiting for other people to comment. Rather I should try to participate in the process, give ideas.”

In December 2014 something unexpected happened. Andy and Mokenyakenya both travelled to South Africa for the African Society for Laboratory Medicine (ASLM) conference, however neither knew the other would be there. As Andy presented on laboratory tools to stop Ebola, Mokenyakenya sat in the audience and recognized his coach. “It was an incredible surprise to be able to meet Mokenyakenya in person and spend time talking while we were in South Africa,” said Andy.

After the conference, their regular meetings continued. “Dr. Andrew had played a major role in terms of discovering new habits and potential in me, most importantly self-confidence,” said Mokenyakenya of his experience.

Andy has also thoroughly enjoyed the experience as a coach. “I have learned more about myself; I’ve become more confident and understanding; and I’ve learned to think and adapt quickly. I am also hopefully making a positive and constructive difference in someone else’s life. The icing on the cake is that coaching Mokenyakenya has led to a friendship that I hope will last for years. That’s priceless!”