Career Options for PhDs: What Does a Biosafety Officer Do?

Nov. 22, 2016

Picture of Mark CampbellMark Campbell Ph.D., CBSP, RBP, SM(NRCM) is a biological safety officer in the Office of Environmental Health and Safety at Saint Louis University. He got his Associate's degree from St. Louis Community College and his Bachelor's in Biology and Master's in Microbiology from Southeast Missouri State University. He also went back to school to get his Ph.D. in Environmental and Occupational Health from Saint Louis University College. He shares what he does, how he got there, and advice for trainees.  

Describe your job functions?
As the biological safety officer for the University, I manage the biological safety program which includes doing risk-assessments on research projects that involve biological materials, implementing a biological waste management process, and managing the biosafety issues associated with new select agent projects. I also collaborate with researchers to contribute biosafety expertise in support of manuscript publications.

What top 3 skills do you utilize the most?

  • Research Skills: Research skills, such as reading journal articles and being able to discern what evidence is credible are essential during the evaluation of risks associated with working on microorganisms. It is important that your risk assessment is evidence-based so that researchers see a clear connection with the decisions you make regarding biosafety and their research.
  • Organizational Skills: Organizing and prioritizing tasks are important for this job because you may have multiple projects at any given time, unexpected visits from regulatory agencies, or newly funded projects that are grant-driven and require timely attention.
  • Communication Skills: Being able to translate the hard science into easy concepts are necessary for this profession because you work with a variety of personnel from academic researchers to facility/housekeeping staff, and occasionally outside regulatory agencies.

Did you always know that you wanted to go into Biological Safety?

The short answer is no.

As an undergrad, I switched my scientific focus from pre-veterinary to microbiology after I took an applied microbiology class and then pursued a master's in microbiology. My virology professor, Dr. Christina Fraiser, told us stories about her time working in high containment laboratories and the best practices of doing research with Yellow Fever virus. It wasn't until 2001, when the biosafety field was quickly emerging as a profession, did I become aware of this potential career path. The job posting for a biosafety officer sounded very similar to the work that Christina did with Yellow Fever virus and I remember being so fascinated and intrigued by her stories, I applied and got the job at Saint Louis University.

What experiences/skills/personalities did you have that made you a good fit for your current job?

I've held many different jobs prior to becoming a biosafety officer, these ranged from being a water proof technician to a research laboratory scientist. What really set me apart were the extensive years of research/bench experience that I had.

I worked at a small biotech company for approximately 7 years prior to becoming a biosafety officer. This company developed animal vaccines using Salmonella and E. coli vectors and during my time there, I learned how to work with animals, the basics of bacteriology and parasitology like plating and cultures, and molecular techniques like cloning, all of which were needed in doing risk assessments for work with biological agents in the laboratory - which I do in my current job.

I later went back to school to get my Ph.D. in Environmental and Occupational Health because so many people in my profession had terminal degrees (like Ph.D., MD, and DVM) and then I got certified with the National Registry of Certified Microbiologists (NRCM) in Biological Safety to stay competitive in my field.

What can students and postdocs do right now to best prepare themselves for entering your profession?

  • Get research experience so you can learn the common techniques in bacteriology, virology, parasitology, molecular biology, and animal work.
  • Get your credentials, i.e. become certified in biological safety through NRCM as a Specialist Microbiologist in Biological Safety Microbiology or Certified Biological Safety Professional (CBSP) and/or Registered Biosafety Professional (RBP) from the American Biological Safety Association (ABSA) International.
  • It's becoming commonplace for people to have terminal degrees in the profession so although it's not required, it's highly recommended.

It seems like you went back to school after working for some time, do you have any specific tips for anyone who is going back to school?

When I went back to school, I was married with 3 kids that were elementary school aged so it was very difficult but doable.

I highly recommend tying-in the degree you are pursuing with your current profession, if appropriate, because that saves you time. Because my thesis was in biosafety and I worked in the field prior to school, the learning curve was not as steep as it would have been otherwise in learning a new field, which gave me a quick start into my thesis. Once you enter your program, be dedicated to the process by staying organized and knowing exactly what you have to do, as well as, be diligent and focused to finish.

What is the outlook for job prospects in your field?

The field is growing fast and with more emerging pathogens and newer molecular biology techniques that are pushing the boundaries of science, it will only grow faster. Biosafety professionals work in a variety of sectors like government, industry, and academic institutions so be sure to look for these positions in all sectors.

It is important to have work-life balance. What are some things you enjoy doing when you are away from the job?

Mark Campbell Jump ropingI built a half-barrel brewery in my basement and enjoy spending time brewing and to work off all of that beer, I do free style jump rope with all the twists and tricks.

Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.