Lab Matters Fall 2019 - Page 40

MEMBERSHIP “That Gem of a Lab”: County of San Luis Obispo Public Health Laboratory by Nancy Maddox, MPH, writer “When people ask me, ‘Where is San Luis Obispo County; what is it near?’ said James Beebe, PhD, D(ABMM), “I have to tell them, ‘Nothing.’ Because we’re halfway up the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco.” Yet, this statement from the director of the county’s public health laboratory (PHL) is not entirely correct. Although San Luis Obispo County is a largely rural, agricultural jurisdiction (population 270,000), it is home to the University of California Polytechnic Institute, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant, and a long sea coast that attracts tourists and yields up oysters, clams and mussels, which the PHL tests along with the water they live in. It also enjoys a large swath of forestland, home to bats, skunks and other wildlife that occasionally contract rabies—another source of PHL testing. In addition to farmers growing wine grapes, strawberries, avocados and other produce, the county has attracted a number of software and biotech firms—“started because people wanted to live where the weather is as kind as it is here” and the views so “extraordinarily beautiful.” Since implementing two molecular syndromic test panels—for respiratory and gastrointestinal pathogens—the PHL has been better able to connect with certain clinical communities, appreciative of the same-day turn-around-time unavailable in local private sector labs. Said Beebe, “We know what’s circulating because these specimens are coming to us,” giving health authorities “a better finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the community.” Other community concerns of note include about a half dozen cases/year of tuberculosis (TB) among migrant farmworkers and valley fever, an endemic fungal disease that rarely disseminates, but can be lethal. 38 LAB MATTERS Fall 2019 The team at the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Laboratory. Photo: San Louis Obispo County PHL Facility Director The laboratory occupies about 3,000 square feet of a 10,000-square-foot stucco and brick building built into the side of hill not far from the Old Town Historic District, with its colonial Spanish architecture. The vintage building, built in 1953, is shared with the public health department’s main offices and main clinic. From 2003 to 2017, the laboratory was renovated room-by- room—a drawn-out experience Beebe likens to “remodeling your kitchen while you’re cooking.” He said, “The staff was amazingly resilient—they just kept on cooking.” Today, laboratorians reap the benefits of that process, with an open workspace and three-room biosafety suite. They also enjoy what Beebe dubs “one of the most beautiful views of any PHL in the nation”—a vista dominated by two of the Seven Sisters extinct volcanic peaks, Bishop Peak and St. Luis Peak, after which San Luis Obispo County is named. Beebe began his lengthy laboratory career in his home state of New Jersey, where he earned BS and MS degrees in biology from Seton Hall University and a PhD in microbiology from Rutgers University. After his third college graduation, he taught at Cornell University Medical College in Manhattan for five years, before completing a two-year post-doc at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, where he learned “how to run a lab.” For the next decade, that’s what he did, working at various times for the companies now called LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics. Beebe left his last work site in Denver to do a year of Christian ministry service at Florida’s Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Center. When he returned home, he “wound up” at the Colorado Public Health Laboratory where he worked for 20 years, finishing up as both laboratory director and manager of the newborn screening and microbiology laboratories. “It was a great run,” he said. PublicHealthLabs @APHL APHL.org