This week Marvin Rivera spent almost 40 hours processing and testing various samples at the New York City Public Health Laboratory (PHL), where he is one of several newly hired laboratory microbiologists to join PHL. What might seem like a monotonous job to some is just what Rivera hoped for when he began working at the lab as a trainee last summer.
“I always knew I wanted to do this work,” he said. “I worked in labs in high school and in college and I always preferred the testing and diagnosis part to the patient interaction part.”
The PHL opened in 1892 as the Municipal Bacteriological Lab, working to control diphtheria, a deadly infectious disease that, five years prior, had led to more than 4,500 deaths in New York City (NYC). Since then, PHL has successfully tested, analyzed and reported results on emerging viruses, diseases and environmental agents, and works to control outbreaks such as Zika, Ebola and Legionnaires’ disease. In fact, it is the only laboratory in the city equipped to handle testing for “white powder jobs,” a term coined after the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Despite extensive technological resources and the ability to review and test some of the most dangerous pathogens, public health labs often struggle to stay adequately staffed. Public health laboratories across the nation face a shortage of qualified individuals at both leadership and technical levels.
Therefore, in 2016, the New York City PHL and the Fund for Public Health in New York City, with $100,000 in funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, developed a one-year pilot program, “Creating Career Pathways to the New York City Public Health Laboratory.” The program trains recent Hunter College Medical Laboratory Sciences program graduates, aiming to ultimately hire them as full-time Laboratory Microbiologists within the NYC Health Department.
“Public health laboratory science is a very specific field, and not every school has a medical laboratory science program,” said Andrea DeVito, special assistant to the assistant commissioner at the NYC Public Health Laboratory. “As a result, many students aren’t familiar with it when they begin undergrad, and often go into more popular areas of study such as pre-medicine.” In addition, public health labs compete with high-paying private hospital and clinical labs for new hires.
DeVito manages the grant and the program, which is currently wrapping up its inaugural year of recruiting and training three recent Hunter College graduates, who all come from underrepresented communities.
Laboratory microbiologists Marvin Rivera and Mously Lo are part of that inaugural class. Last summer, they began working as paid trainees at the PHL where they learned the ropes and studied for their New York State (NYS) clinical licensure exam. Over six months, they worked closely with laboratory staff and administrators for 25 hours a week, rotating through lab sections such as microbiology and virology. They learned to identify bacterial pathogens like salmonella, Neisseria gonorrhea and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and detect viruses like Zika and measles.
“It’s great,” said Lo. “You get to see something every day and you’re constantly working on new things.”
All three trainees passed their NYS licensure exam (a requirement for testing clinical specimens in NYS). NYC PHL hired two of the three trainees as full-time laboratory microbiologists. The third trainee accepted a position at a hospital laboratory. The new hires will contribute to the work that helps keep 8.5 million New Yorkers safe and healthy.
“This pilot has been a resounding success,” said Dr. Jennifer Rakeman, assistant commissioner and laboratory director at PHL. “The long-term goal is to sustain the program so that PHL can continue to develop talented microbiologists and further strengthen the relationship between the Medical Laboratory Science program at Hunter College and the NYC PHL.”