Wednesday, 08 November 2017 10:16

Working With International Sites: Testing For Enteric and Tuberculosis

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Published in Careers

Public Health Thank You Day, celebrated November 20th, recognizes the work of public health professionals. To shed some light on the type of work public health professionals do, we interviewed Dr. Darwin Operario, a senior scientist at the University of Virginia. His job responsibilities can be summed up in 3 words: Develop, Validate, and Deploy.

Dr. Operario has always been very passionate about public health and science. He wanted to apply his science skills to solving global public health questions, no matter how big or small. Knowing this, Dr. Operario chose the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, where he could obtain both a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology and a Master’s in Public Health (MPH).  He chose a lab where he could focus on viral biochemistry with cross-training in bacteriology and immunology.  This allowed for a breadth of knowledge in both microbiology and immunology.  One main focus of his graduate work was optimizing his experimental designs.

His graduate work led him to a postdoc at the Wadsworth Center, which is part of the New York State Department of Health. It’s one of the only institutions in the nation that was built to put laboratory sciences and public health under the same roof. During his postdoc, he developed real-time PCR assays to assess drug resistance in seasonal influenza. He also had the opportunity to observe data regarding the geographical spread of the 2009 Novel H1N1 flu virus (“swine flu”) in New York State. His training served him well and allowed him to have “different conversations” using his microbiology knowledge or public health/epidemiology skill sets.

Dr. Operario then went to a research scientist position in the laboratory of Eric Houpt, M.D., at the University of Virginia.  Just a week after he started in the lab he very quickly had to attend a planning meeting in Dubai, which meant that he had to be flexible.  “How quickly you pivot will be important in any field you go into,” notes Darwin.

In his current position as a senior scientist, a public health degree was not required. Instead, his most important skill set is still molecular biology. Dr. Operario developed qPCR tests for enteric pathogens and tuberculosis, as well as, learned tests for blood-borne diseases. He spends a great deal of time interacting with researchers and public health workers at international centers. This includes centers outside of the United States, such as Haiti, where they speak French.  “I wish I had kept up with my French skills, but now, kept up or not, I’m using French a lot,” he comments.  He recommends that trainees be fluent in another language, such as French, Spanish, or even Swahili if they are interested in working globally.

He interacts weekly with international sites that are using his qPCR tests. He conducts training sessions with researchers using the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that he and his colleagues developed to specify all necessary steps. The SOP has to be clear enough to be understood so that users can execute the test properly. “Having great quality control is a must,” he adds. Dr. Operario also helps with troubleshooting and receives feedback on how the assay(s) is working. The most rewarding part of his job is being able to train international teams to collect and analyze data correctly.

While he stays in contact with the international sites via email, Skype, and What’s App, Dr. Operario spends 25-35% of his time traveling to international field sites. The work has been funded through grants from the Gates Foundation and partnerships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through his supervisor, Dr. Houpt.

Teaching in TanzaniaDr. Operario teaching a short course on molecular diagnostics in Tanzania.

Looking back, he underestimated the gap between academic science and global health, for example between epidemiology and bench research. He didn’t have a role model and paved a career path that was multidisciplinary and very uniquely his own. He thinks that the job outlook is strong because of the diversity of issues in global health, which can range from working in infectious diseases as a test developer or on noninfectious diseases like the prevention of heart disease or obesity. He recommends doing informational interviews with scientists at local and state health departments to ask two key questions: “What types of jobs will be needed in 5-10 years? What type of local issues are there?”    

Dr. Operario recommends that “Although an M.P.H. is not absolutely required to work in this field, epidemiology courses are helpful.” He also recommends that anyone looking to enter laboratory positions in public or global health must be very organized, especially with lab notebooks, and have the ability to learn languages. He also relies heavily on the coding and programming skills of his bioinformatics research partners. He suggests that you follow American Public Health Laboratories (APHL) and the CDC on Twitter to stay up to date on the latest public health news. Dr. Operario reads the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Clinical Infectious Diseases, World Health Organization bulletins and ASM’s Journal of Clinical Microbiology.

Lab in BelarusDr. Operario conducting a laboratory walkthrough in Belarus. 

This interview was conducted on the phone while Dr. Operario was in Haiti earlier this summer. I later checked with Dr. Operario after the hurricanes and he said that the Haitian part of the island did not take a direct hit, so his testing site wasn’t disturbed. Much thanks to Dr. Operario for spending the time with me to talk about his career path and position responsibilities.

To learn more about public health careers, check out our interview with Dr. Denise Toney, a Lab Director at the State Laboratory for Virginia, and also a collaborator of Dr. Houpt's lab.

 To learn more about different careers in public health and microbiology, sign-up to receive ASM's career newsletter. 


Last modified on Tuesday, 14 November 2017 12:10
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.