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Outbreaks and Safety Concerns in Biodefense Research

Careers in Science From the Field

Patrick Stockton is a Microbiologist for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Special Pathogens Branch. Prior to joining the CDC in 1996, Mr. Stockton worked in the United States Department of Agriculture. He earned a MS from the University of Georgia in 1992.

What is your profession?

I am a Microbiologist for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Special Pathogens Branch (PSB).

What are the responsibilities of your position?

My responsibilities are with the Diagnostic Section of Special Pathogens. This includes organizing incoming diagnostic specimens and testing these specimens for live viruses, antibodies and/or antigens for specific hemorrhagic fever viruses. I also maintain active protocols for our diagnostic tests, as well as teaching these protocols to individuals from various state health labs and international labs.

Can you describe a typical week in your position?

A typical work week starts with a laboratory meeting every Monday morning. These meetings allow us, as a lab, to evaluate current on-going experimentation and to plan for the specimens that we will be receive in the near future. This is a very important function for our lab, not only for organization purposes but also because of safety issues. With the nature of the viruses we work with in SPB, we must always be aware of what potential virus we may be handling when the specimens arrive. Most of the viruses we run diagnostics for require us to work in the BSL-4 maximum containment lab. We generally enter the BSL-4 lab on a daily basis to observe on-going virus isolation attempts on diagnostic specimens, as well as on-going experimentation involving various animal models. Because of the viruses we work with and the special facilities needed to safely handle these viruses, most of our diagnostic reagents are made in house by the microbiologist. There are only a few laboratories in the world that work with the viruses we handle in SPB, so there are not commercial reagents available. The reagents we prepare are for our bench work. Bench work includes running specific ELISA assays or IFA assays to quantitatively measure specific antibody and/or antigen concentrations in a diagnostic specimen.

A typical work week is not something easily described for our lab. I could come in tomorrow and find myself setting up for four or five incoming specimens or for four or five thousand. During a typical work year SPB will handle anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 diagnostic specimens. Some of these specimens are also handled in the field at outbreak sites. As a diagnostic lab we must be able to set up portable labs to take to the field for immediate onsite diagnosis. A lot of cross training is required for the microbiologist in Special Pathogens.

What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?

The most satisfying and most challenging aspects of this job are really the same. International traveling and setting up an on-site diagnostic lab is certainly the most challenging aspect. A lot of work and proper planning is required to successfully manage this endeavor. But once this is done successfully, the rewards from the people that you are helping are tremendous. It is very satisfying to be able to see first-hand how you are actually helping a country, village or family. To be able to speak to these people and look them in the eye and see how truly glad they are that you are there helping them is an immensely satisfying feeling.

What is the greatest benefit of working in this field?

I would answer this question the same as I answered "what do I find most satisfying and most challenging." International travel and meeting and interacting with different cultures are certainly great benefits.

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

Obviously in today's world, post 9/11, terrorism is a major challenge for our field. There are a lot of new regulations and directives that are evolving that have a direct effect on how we do our day-to-day job.

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

I would have to say organization is the most important skill for a microbiologist. Regardless of how hard a worker is or how imaginative their work is, if you do not have good records of the work then you cannot truly be sure of your results. Record keeping and history of a specimen or a certain protocol will certainly be needed to validate your results. The inability to properly organize these procedures and results and to accurately record them can invalidate perfectly good tests. As a scientist, you must be able to validate your results.

What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this field?

I would recommend, while in college, to get some experience in the lab. I personally worked in a chemistry lab while in college. Most professors will establish some work study programs each year and will be looking for some help. This will allow a student to really see what goes on in a lab and what kind of characteristics are needed to be successful in a laboratory setting.

What type of education background is required?

Most entry level lab positions require a Bachelors degree in the sciences.

What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions? What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?

Biological Lab Technician is the entry level job position for most undergraduates. In this position a person will learn his or her way around the lab by assisting the researcher in day to day operations. They will generally learn basic lab techniques as well as basic lab safety. The successful Lab Tech will take this knowledge and expand on it and establish himself or herself in the lab.

What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field? Is there a salary ceiling?

Depending on what part of the country you live in, salaries can vary. But most entry level positions will start around $30,000 per year and max out somewhere around $65,000 to $70,000. Obviously the higher salaries require many years of experience or advanced degrees. You will not become wealthy in microbiology, but sometimes the satisfaction of doing what you actually like doing and truly contributing in such a positive manner to society is reward enough.

What special advice do you have for a student seeking to qualify for a position in this field?

Simply to get as much experience as you can while in college. The ability to know how a lab functions and the skills required to be successful in a lab is essential. There are many intern programs or cooperative education programs available at most universities. Take advantage of these programs. Intern programs not only give you hands-on experience, but also lead to valuable contacts--and once you have entered the working world, "contacts' can be your life line. It pays to know people because people want to know who they are hiring.

Submitted by: Melody Parsa 2004 intern