Becoming a Public Health Leader: Spotlight on Anthony Tran

May 30, 2024

Anthony Tran, Dr.PH
Anthony Tran, Dr.PH
Source: Anthony Tran
Anthony Tran's career is underscored by a deep commitment to improving public health. From consulting on global public health initiatives to navigating infectious disease outbreaks and promoting food safety, his focus is steadfast on making a broad impact. “As a physician, you help one patient at a time, but in public health, you help masses of people at a time,” Tran, Dr.PH., the director of the State Public Health Laboratory (now part of the Center for Laboratory Sciences) for the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), recalled a mentor telling him earlier in his career. “That’s really what public health is about—helping groups and communities, either small or large.” 

Tran’s journey to a career in public health wasn’t linear. It was lab work and scientific experiments that first drew him to STEM. In fact, Tran's fascination with science started early, influenced by his own academic curiosity and the aspirations of his relatives. "I was always very scientifically oriented, even at a younger age," Tran said. His high school experience included introductory laboratory experiments (e.g., frog dissection), which sparked his interest in the scientific method. Furthermore, he credits the ambitions of his cousins, who were pursuing careers in medicine and dentistry, with initially directing his attention to science. 

But despite his initial interest in a medical career, Tran found himself disenchanted with the lengthy and demanding journey required to become a clinician. "I realized that it really wasn't me," he explained. This led him to explore other scientific avenues, eventually discovering a program in medical technology (now known as clinical laboratory sciences) at the University of Maryland. This program offered a blend of focused scientific study and practical laboratory experience. 

Tran's decision to switch to a medical technology program was a turning point. "I loved how much science it [covered]," he said. “That’s really where I learned about [the depth of scientific] careers, too. I would have a degree that was marketable for the laboratory that I could use to get a job after graduation.” His coursework covered a wide variety of topics, from clinical chemistry to parasitology. “The focus that I really enjoyed most was microbiology," Tran emphasized. 

He emerged from the program in 1998 and became an American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) board certified medical technologist. Tran's academic journey also included an internship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which would eventually turn into a full-time job. “This is where I started my laboratory career,” Tran said. Here, he and a team of researchers investigated how human serum and plasma proteins might be impacted by silicone breast implants, with a particular interest in the effects on human health if the silicone breast implants were leaking. Their findings ultimately revealed there were no effects on proteins. Tran earned the Dean's Award from the University of Maryland School of Medicine for that research. 

Following his work at NIH, “I quickly realized that clinical chemistry was not what [I loved to do], and being on the bench was not something that I could see myself doing forever,” Tran said. A conversation with his principal investigator (PI) led him to consider public health, a field he knew little about at the time. "When I say I kind of fell into public health, I really fell into public health. I had no idea about it," Tran said. But the idea of leveraging his scientific expertise for larger-scale population health projects was intriguing to Tran, and he subsequently pursued a master’s degree in public health at the University of Maryland (1999-2001), where he quickly realized the impact his work could have.  

In the years after the completion of his master’s degree, Tran’s public health work truly spanned the gamut. At the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), he did everything from international lab management in countries, including his homeland of Vietnam, China, Ethiopia, Guyana, Sierra Leone and Paraguay, to developing a new diagnostic testing algorithm for HIV. He also worked as a public health consultant, where his projects included conducting research for the Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation and creating equipment recommendations for Kenya Ministry of Health laboratories. 

After more than a decade of impactful work, Tran decided to advance his education further. He enrolled in the Doctor of Public Health (Dr.PH.) program at University of California (UC) Berkeley in 2010, as part of the Lab Aspire program, which aimed to train the next generation of public health laboratory directors. And, upon completing his doctoral degree, Tran enrolled in ASM’s Subcommittee on Postgraduate Educational Programs (CPEP) Fellowship, where he was placed at University of North Carolina (UNC) Hospitals and gained additional clinical and public health microbiology training. “That's really where I started to say, ‘Okay, I can sort of call myself a microbiologist,’” he said.  

Upon completing his fellowship, Tran held leadership positions in public health laboratories in various jurisdictions, including New York City and Washington, D.C. His tenure in New York City was particularly challenging, coinciding with the tail end of the Ebola outbreak that emerged in late 2014, the city's largest Legionella outbreak in 2015 and the emergence of Zika virus in 2015.  

In Washington, D.C., Tran expanded his focus beyond infectious diseases to include forensic sciences and illicit drug testing, particularly for opioids like fentanyl. His team found over 20 fentanyl analogs and 20 synthetic cannabinoids. These substances were found in drug products and paraphernalia, like syringes. “The purpose of this was to inform both public health and law enforcement that these new drugs were entering into the drug supply. Some of these fentanyl analogs had never been discovered in the U.S. before as they were not in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) database. We found them first,” Tran added. “These experiences really expanded my understanding and definition of public health.” 

Now at CDPH, Tran has shifted his focus to more “on-the-ground work.” He said this focus is, in part, inspired by his parents—first-generation Vietnamese Americans who were heavily involved in community service. "My parents were always extremely [active] volunteers. They immigrated here many years ago and created and supported a nonprofit that helped other immigrants,” Tran said. “It's always been that kind of focus on helping others that is ingrained in my head; being there on the ground [as a public health leader] was what struck a chord and really resonated with me.” This has driven Tran to take on roles at various levels of government, ensuring that his initiatives reach those who need them most. 

Tran currently plays a pivotal role in California's public health infrastructure, a state that encapsulates an expansive network of public health laboratories. "In California, we have almost 40 million people and 61 local health jurisdictions. We also have the largest network of public health laboratories in the country," he explained. This extensive network, comprising 29 public health laboratories, provides a robust platform for addressing public health issues ranging from infectious diseases to environmental health concerns. 

While infectious diseases laboratories make up the largest entity under CDPH’s labs, Tran’s role also encompasses food and drug protection and even radiological testing. For example, Tran's team detected extremely high levels of lead in a hemorrhoid cream that was recently linked to a tragic and unexpected death. Swiftly identifying and acting on such dangers is essential to protecting the public and is foundational to the work of CDPH, Tran added. 

One of Tran's favorite aspects of his work is collaborating with California's public health laboratories. "I love networking with [the labs] and understanding their needs," he said. The mutual support between the state and local laboratories is crucial, given their independent governance and funding structures. This collaboration ensures that both state guidance and local innovations contribute to public health advancements. 

Looking ahead, Tran said he’s most excited about upcoming workforce development initiatives. "We're looking at how we can get into schools to promote careers in public health laboratories," he said. His team will prioritize creating fellowship and internship programs to attract and retain talent in the field. 

Throughout his career, Tran has been committed to mentoring the next generation of public health professionals. He often shares his journey and experiences, emphasizing the importance of flexibility and openness to new opportunities. "It's okay to not have everything plotted out in your life. Sometimes you just don't know," Tran advised. “So, take some chances; take some risks. If it's not for you, you can always stop and pivot, right? Don't think that [when you start something] you have to do it for the rest of your life.” He added that it’s important to follow your passion and remain adaptable. 

As Tran continues his work in public health, his legacy serves as an inspiration to those entering the field. As scientists progress in their careers, Tran maintains that patience is key, especially in the ever-changing landscape of public health. "Understand that some things are in your control, and some are out of your control," he said. "You have to work iteratively and collaboratively to make the best of the situation."  

Author: Leah Potter, M.S.

Leah Potter, M.S.
Leah Potter joined ASM in 2022 as the Communications Specialist.