Discovering My True Passion: A Career in Public Health

Working on the front line by protecting the nation’s health is what public health laboratories are all about, and the Montana Public Health Laboratory (MTPHL) professionals take this message to heart. Whether performing molecular testing on NP swabs for pertussis or influenza, confirming the presence of HIV antibodies, or detecting anthrax in environmental cultures, laboratory professionals serve as valuable resources for safeguarding the health of our citizens. I feel fortunate to count myself in this group.

My work as a manager at the MTPHL, where I have been employed for over 20 years, is both rewarding and challenging. When I graduated from Montana State University with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and did a 12-month clinical laboratory science internship, I thought my career would revolve around patient testing in a clinical laboratory. I started my first job at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, but after six years I became a stay-at-home mom. When my children were older, I decided to return to work, and was offered a job helping to start up the Newborn Screening Laboratory and to test drinking water for bacteria. I took the position because the hours worked well with raising a family. What I didn’t realize was that I had actually found my true passion.

A career in public health has allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I have had opportunities to learn new technologies for emerging diseases, to challenge myself to do applied research, to present seminars across the country, and to develop valuable networks with colleagues. The best part about working in a small public health laboratory like the MTPHL is that I get to work on a variety of projects and every day is a new opportunity. In the same day, I may help investigate a food borne illness, monitor trends in diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, consult with infectious disease physicians, review quality assurance documents, write grants, evaluate staff competency, and help develop policy!

One of the biggest challenges I have faced was bringing molecular testing to the MTPHL. It was a little intimidating to me, since I was never academically trained in molecular techniques like real-time PCR - that technology didn’t exist when I was in school. We investigated and purchased real-time PCR equipment, adapted 1950’s laboratory space into unidirectional workflow space, ordered supplies and reagents, and amassed protocols. We went to training and read the literature, yet it was difficult to take that final step! Fortunately, I had developed a network of contacts in public health over the years. My contacts at the Colorado Public Health Laboratory allowed me to visit their facility and get some hands-on experience performing real-time PCR assays. After I got my feet wet, it didn’t seem so hard! The first in-house validated test we offered was a Bordetella pertussis assay – just in time to have the largest per capita outbreak in the nation in 2005. Now, our laboratory serves as a molecular referral laboratory for many of the clinical laboratories in Montana. Plus, just as Colorado did for us, we now serve as a learning facility for local laboratory professionals as they set up molecular testing in their own laboratories.

Public health laboratory professionals work closely with partners such as epidemiologists, county public health nurses and sanitarians, clinical laboratorians, physicians, and experts at the Centers for Disease Control. These partners recognize the essential role that laboratory professionals make in addressing public health problems. Laboratory professionals are the unsung heroes, and public health laboratorians are no different. It is very rewarding to know that our efforts protect Montana’s citizens - even when they don’t know they are at risk!

Susanne N. Zanto currently works as the Microbiology and Molecular Laboratory Manager at the Montana Public Health Laboratory in Helena, MT. She became certified as a NRCM Specialist Microbiologist in 1993.

Copyright© National Registry of Certified Microbiologists. Reprinted from The Loop, 2008, Issue 2.