Working in Public Health at the State Level
When emerging diseases arise like COVID-19, many professions are involved in the handling of the disease. One of those is a public health professional who, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA), “promotes the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.” In microbiology, public health professionals research, detect, track, treat and prevent infection with microorganisms that cause infectious diseases.
Public health microbiology includes job titles like researcher, physician, laboratorian, epidemiologist, scientist, veterinarian, biostatistician and many more. We interviewed Dr. Denise Toney, who is at the Division of Consolidated Laboratories (DCLS) at the State Laboratory of Virginia. She began her career as a lead scientist and is now Lab Director, where she manages a research lab.
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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Personally, I was interested in finding a job in Richmond or surrounding 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. I learned a lot of different techniques, which at the time I didn’t realize would benefit me as much as they did with getting my position at DCLS. The diversity of techniques included protein chemistry, cell culturing, ELISAs, running gels, electron microscopy, RNA/DNA testing and fluorescent staining of cells.
What do you do on a typical day or 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 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 interacting with federal agencies on their initiatives.
As a lab director, I oversee policies and procedures, personnel issues, facility safety, quality assurance, funding, budgeting and the list goes on. I participate in many local, state and federal 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 up-and-coming 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 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.
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 students 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.
What is one thing you wished you knew in graduate school?
I wish I had known more about non-academic 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, however 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 achieve 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.”