Why #PublicHealth Matters
Public Health Microbiology and Clinical Microbiology are closely related fields. The skills and training for each overlap, as do career trajectories in these sectors. Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, currently a Professor and Chair of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at Texas State University, spends his time in clinical microbiology and medical laboratory education, but previously spent many years working in Public Health Microbiology—what he calls a “hybrid” profession. He shares his experience in government and public health and his favorite project, along with some advice.
Why is the profession of public health so important?
Much like medical laboratory professionals, we all take public health professionals and what they do every day for granted. We only understand how critically important public health is to society when emergencies occur like the Flint, Michigan water crisis, or Ebola entering the United States or when some other disease agent emerges within our communities.
I often write and speak about how #PublicHealth matters, ALL the time, to EVERYONE. Public Health professionals work behind the scenes to ensure you and your loved ones are safe from so many different types of threats. Whether it’s helping to investigate a foodborne outbreak, or mapping the current influenza transmission across the United States and world or ensuring that childhood and adult vaccinations are available to you in your hometown, these individuals build and maintain the invisible safety infrastructure.
You received your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and started working as a public health microbiologist for the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). What qualifications did you have that made you a great fit for the position?
The laboratory skills that I obtained in both degrees and my research on poliovirus antiviral systems in cell culture made me a good fit for the public health laboratory position I applied for.
I also taught graduate and undergraduate level microbiology, botany, immunology and virology labs during graduate school which strengthened my skills in preparing laboratory media, stocking supplies and using basic equipment like autoclaves, pH meters and semi- and automated pipettes. My Master’s degree definitely set me apart from others in the public health employment pipeline, but it was not required. There are plenty of Bachelor's level graduates that are hired in public health labs.
Once you enter government, how easy is it to move up?
Like any government agency, the answer is “maybe.” It depends on the area of specialization and if you happen to be there when people are retiring or going back to graduate school. I was fortunate because my graduate degree with a virology emphasis helped me move quickly to the Virus Isolation section, and later to the Rabies/Arbovirus sections, where I used my advanced knowledge and research skills. Certainly, more education helps to move up and be promoted, but there’s also the element of “good timing” and one’s willingness to take on unique projects and have a strong work ethic. Typically, there are a variety of public health laboratory positions. For example, at the Texas DSHS, there are tracks/titles for microbiologists, chemists, medical laboratory scientists, team leads/supervisors, epidemiologists and many more external to the laboratory (nurse, physician, veterinarian, etc.).
What was your favorite project that you’ve worked on in your public health career and why?
There have been some amazing projects that I’ve been blessed to work on. However, if I had to pick one of them it would be the Oral Rabies Vaccination Program (ORVP) with the Texas DSHS. In 1994, I was selected to fill a hybrid position as 50% public health laboratorian and 50% molecular epidemiologist for the Zoonosis Control Division at DSHS. In my role, I trained at the CDC Rabies Laboratory in Atlanta and learned from several giants in the field of rabies diagnostics and control. This training helped me establish a Regional Rabies Virus Variant Typing Laboratory at Texas DSHS, which geographically maps rabies variants. The ORVP was and is truly an international effort to vaccinate wildlife (coyote and fox) by dropping recombinant rabies vaccines from fixed wing aircraft. In fact, we eliminated canine rabies from Texas. The ORVP is still going today. We just celebrated the 25th anniversary. So, I got to work in the rabies laboratory AND go into the field by flight to immunize wildlife against this diabolical virus; a monumental public health achievement that may never be surpassed.
I was part of an amazing international team of public health professionals (veterinarians, laboratorian, wildlife biologists, military, etc.) that changed my life and worldview. It changed how I approached everything from my teaching to research. My public health roots continue to feed my growth as a researcher, public health advocate and mentor/teacher at Texas State University.
How did receiving your Ph.D. allow you to combine clinical microbiology and public health microbiology?
I got my Ph.D. in 2010 with a focus on antibiotic resistance of MRSA and healthcare associated infections (HAIs). The Ph.D. opened so many doors for me and continues to do so. In 2011, I became the Associate Dean for Research at Texas State University in the College of Health Professions. Most recently, I’ve served as the Associate Director of the Translational Health Research Initiative. However, it’s important to mention here that these roles are in my academic setting. I also sit on several national and international Scientific Advisory Boards, as well as serving as an invited subject matter expert on rabies and HAIs. In the past few years, I’ve found a passion for science communication and health literacy, especially after being invited to give a TEDx talk.
What valuable career advice have you gotten and what’s the best career advice you can give to students?
I have been the beneficiary of so many great mentors in my life. It starts with my mom and dad who always told us, “No one ever died from hard work, so out-work everyone in the room.” That “work ethic” has served me well in every job and life experience that I have encountered.
The other great piece of advice I received over my career path is to always be prepared for the job/career you want. This is something that I would pass along to you as well. After getting my Master’s degree, I applied to microbiology-related jobs in hospitals. I then realized that I needed a credential known as the Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS). What was more striking, is that there were NAACLS accredited Clinical Laboratory Science programs that allow you to “sit” for the MLS credential. I recommend that you be prepared for the career you want, learn from others along the way, step out of your comfort area, find a mentor(s), be courteous and thank everyone that helps you along the path.