As a kid , Lopez loved science and set out to major in biology in college . However , at age 19 , she was a single parent with a severely developmentally delayed daughter who needed around-the-clock care . Fortunately , Lopez was able to live at home with her parents , who were incredibly supportive . They took care of their granddaughter in the evening so Lopez could take night classes , first at a community college an hour away , later transferring to nearby Fresno State .
But a master ’ s degree , let alone a doctorate , was not in her plans . She knew she needed to land a good job , preferably as a clinical laboratory scientist , after graduating college so she could pay for her daughter ’ s care . So , in her junior year , when she recognized that she needed more clinical laboratory experience on her resume , she hatched a plan : She would get the highest grade on the first exam in her medical microbiology class and then approach her professor immediately after to ask to work in her laboratory . And , it worked — she got the best grade and connected with her professor .
That professor , Mamta Rawat , PhD , pointed Lopez to a fellowship program through the US Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA )
that would pay her tuition and a stipend as she earned a master ’ s degree . With that support , Lopez continued her education . When she finished her fellowship and earned her master ’ s , a trainee microbiologist position opened in the Tulare County , California , Public Health Laboratory . She was hired and completed the required six-month training program to become a statecertified public health microbiologist .
“ That was the first time that I ’ d heard of a public health microbiologist , and I ’ d never even really thought of public health or understood what public health was ,” Lopez said .
Lopez had been familiar with the role of diagnostic testing for individual patient care . But as she learned about the wider focus of public health , she was hooked . “ I saw how public health data are used for public health action at a population level , providing services regardless of means or health insurance , and tackling problems like outbreaks or persistent diseases at a larger scale ,” she said . “ That was just so exciting to me , and it gave me a feeling of a greater sense of purpose in what I was doing .”
Programs to Build the Pipeline
Public health infrastructure continues to face sustained erosion in funding and support . Many public health laboratories have been understaffed , underpaid and underappreciated for years , doing what they could with fewer resources . When COVID-19 arrived on US shores , laboratory personnel faced intense pressure to ramp up , despite few immediate resources . The strain has been evident in many laboratories , as staff have resigned or retired . Since the pandemic began , nearly half of the laboratory director positions — 59 out of 134 member laboratories — have turned over , according to APHL .
Even before the pandemic , almost one-third of state public health laboratory personnel in 2016 indicated an intent to leave within the next five years , according to the APHL workforce report Focus on Public Health Laboratories
. After controlling for other factors , more men and millennials ( compared to Generation Xers ) indicated an intent to leave . In a 2021 APHL report
examining millennials in the public health laboratory workforce , barriers to retention included salary and lack of a career path for employee growth or promotion .
In recent years , several programs have been developed or expanded to improve career opportunities for laboratory personnel . The APHL Emerging Leader Program ( ELP )
is a 12-month leadership development program for laboratory professionals . Each year , 12 to 15 individuals are selected to form a cohort class . The cohort participates in skill development workshops , networking opportunities , leadership exercises and project development .
I saw how public health data are used for public health action at a population level , providing services regardless of means or health insurance , and tackling problems like outbreaks or persistent diseases at a larger scale . That was just so exciting to me ...”
Denise Lopez , DrPH
has worked her way up to her current role as laboratory supervisor of compliance . In her previous role as a microbiologist IV , she was in an administrative role as a quality control officer . She started getting involved and interested in the larger public health context of what the laboratory provided the community .
Smith was accepted into the 2020 ELP cohort . While the pandemic forced her cohort to become virtual-only , that didn ’ t dampen the experience . If anything , she was more immersed in it with weekly Zoom meetings . One of the most valuable aspects of the program , she said , was identifying your work personality and learning how to work well with others based on different work personalities .
It was helpful , she said , “ just learning about leadership in general , and what those characteristics are and making sure
6 LAB MATTERS Winter 2022