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Outbreaks and Safety Concerns in Biodefense
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
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
What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying?
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
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
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
What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage
someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this
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
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