Wednesday, 09 August 2017 14:31

Working in Public Health at the State Level

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Published in Careers

Some scientists go to graduate school because they want to help others by finding a treatment, a vaccine, or a cure for a disease or condition.  Besides a general interest in biomedicine, I wanted to find a cure for Type I diabetes.  But then we hear about another field, public health.  Who are public health professionals and what do they do?  What can you do to get into a public health career?  Which of the following jobs: epidemiologists, health educators, restaurant inspectors, social workers, community planners, and or public policy makers—are considered public health jobs? Would you need a particular degree to work in any of these areas?  The American Public Health Association notes that “public health promotes the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.” Public health professionals assure that the conditions in which people reside in are healthy. Public health also works to “track disease outbreaks, prevent injuries and shed light on why some of us are more likely to suffer from poor health than others.”

Several months ago, I wrote about informational interviews and how incredibly useful they can be. To learn more about the field of public health, I performed informational interviews with three scientists who have taken different paths to ultimately be in very diverse positions that fall under the category of public health. My first interview subject for this edition of Microbe Mentor is Denise Toney, Ph.D., HCLD (ABB), the Director of the Division of Consolidated Laboratories (DCLS), the State Laboratory for Virginia.

Have you always wanted to work in public health?  

Not exactly

What drew you to Public Health?  

I was always drawn to the medical/research field and loved my coursework in infectious diseases and microbiology but never knew much about public health outside of the CDC.  Personally, I was interested in finding a job in Richmond or surronding areas. The state lab position at DCLS was posted and presented an opportunity for me to apply my molecular postdoctoral training to disease detection.

What was your Ph.D. discipline? Did it help you get into your current field?  

My Ph.D. was in Microbiology and Immunology from Virginia Commonwealth University and involved the use of lots of different techniques which at the time I didn’t realize would benefit me as much as it did with getting my position at DCLS. The diversity of techniques included protein chemistry, cell culturing, ELISAs, running gels, electron microscopy, RNA and DNA testing, and fluorescent staining of cells.

What do you do in a typical day? Typical week?  

I’ve been employed at DCLS for over 20 years, but only a Director for about 5 years, so my job duties are different now as the Lab Director than when I first began as a Lead Scientist. As a Lead Scientist, I wrote grants, developed and implemented new test methods, communicated with our lab customers, provided training on methods to other scientists, interpreted results and spent a significant amount of time talking and interacting with federal agencies and federal initiatives.

As a Lab Director, I oversee policies and procedures, personnel issues, facility safety, quality assurance, funding, and budgeting, and the list goes on.  I participate on many local, state, and federal committees, boards and workgroups. Now, an important part of my job is interfacing with colleagues in other organizations or the legislature.

I also personally do a lot of community outreach to other professionals and students at all levels.

What do you find most rewarding?  

I definitely enjoy doing community outreach and working to prepare and train the upcoming workforce, especially women.

What skills and experiences are essential for succeeding in your position?

Critical thinking, ability to troubleshoot, and strong written and oral communication skills, and a solid knowledge base in the sciences are the most important.  The more diverse your experiences and training are, the better for public health.

What advice would you give to someone who has an M.S. in Biochemistry and wants to transfer to the public health field?  

Go for it.  Your biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology, biology, or molecular degree is perfect for many public health areas. Try a public health fellowship or internship to solidify your interest before you commit. The CDC, Association of Public Health Laboratories, and APHA have incredible fellowships listed.

What, in your opinion, is the job outlook in public health?  

Personally, I think the outlook is really good, especially if you have experiences in advanced molecular detection and informatics.  There will always be emerging diseases and a need for good scientists.  You have to balance the rewards and security that comes from a job in public service with the money you could make in the private sector, and that’s a personal decision.

What types of positions exist in Public Health and what are the educational requirements?  

This really depends.  Very few positions in public health "require" an advanced degree, but it definitely helps you to be more competitive in securing the position. Experience in public health is definitely a plus, especially through an internship or fellowship.  We end up hiring most of our interns/fellows because our training program is focused on developing talented and qualified public health scientists.

What professional associations or publications should I be involved in or read?  

Any that will allow you to network with other professionals, including biotechnology associations, public health associations (Association of Public Health Laboratories), and the American Society for Microbiology.  Believe it or not, many alumni associations are a great source of contacts.

From what you know now, what do you wished you knew in grad school?  

I wish I had known more about nonacademic careers. I wish I had spent more time talking to other scientific professionals when I went to conferences.  I didn't spend a lot of time researching jobs and continuing education options, but that was a long time ago and now the resources are incredible!  I can honestly say for me I was so fortunate to have the “right mentors” and be in the “right place at the right time”.  Another piece of advice, don’t spend too much time “planning your career path;” instead, spend your time trying to figure out what your passion is and then don't give up on trying to acheive it. My graduate mentor always told me “There will always be positions for good people—so go for what you want and never let others discourage you.”

Dr. Toney gives us a perspective from the State lab side of public health.  As a career mentor, I echo what she says.  Take the time to research career paths that you are interested in. Alumni associations from your undergraduate and graduate institutions are always a great place to look for networking opportunities, ways to make connections, and people to do informational interviews with.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 15 August 2017 12:29
Lisa Kozlowski

Lisa Kozlowski is an immunologist by trade with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and postdoctoral training at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  She then found her true passion of helping others, especially science trainees, to find the best fit for their future careers.  This passion blossomed at Science's Next Wave, now part of Science Careers, and has continued over the past 13 years at Thomas Jefferson University. During this time, she has directed the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs while also playing a role in graduate student affairs and recruitment.  She has also continued her passion for providing career guidance and mentoring to students and postdocs, on a one-on-one basis, through career development workshops and courses, and through her guidance of several student and postdoctoral organizations.