Working on the front line by protecting the nation’s health is what public health laboratories are all about. Whether performing molecular testing on NP swabs for pertussis or influenza, confirming the presence of HIV antibodies, or detecting anthrax in environmental cultures, laboratory professionals serve as valuable resources for safeguarding the health of our citizens.

Public health laboratories employ clinical laboratory scientists, microbiologists, chemists, molecular biologists, researchers and other laboratorians with various levels of education from associate degrees to doctorates. Currently, opportunities abound in public health laboratories because national funding has been increased to improve infrastructure and incorporate advanced technology. These government positions are advertised on state and local government websites, and through normal governmental channels. One could also contact local public health laboratory directors, and the Association of Public Health Laboratories may also be a resource. As governmental employees, salaries in public health are dependent on legislative action, but usually mimic wages in the community. Staffing is usually Monday through Friday, day shift only, with occasional weekend duty.

Those who are familiar with the hectic stress of a hospital laboratory find public health laboratories a huge (and frequently welcome) contrast. Rarely are tests performed on a STAT basis. Most intervention decisions are made based on populations, rather than individuals. For example, public health laboratorians perform testing for seasonal for influenza viruses to determine which strains are circulating so decisions may be made regarding the composition of next year’s vaccine. This is in contrast to clinical laboratories in which viral results are used to diagnose illnesses affecting specific patients. As another example, the results of Hepatitis A IgM titers are not used for diagnostic purposes but to guide decisions regarding who needs to receive post-exposure immune globulin.

Public health laboratorians work closely with other public health professionals and our partners in the clinical laboratories in:

  • Investigating and controlling emerging infectious diseases and outbreaks;
  • Preventing disease and disability in vulnerable populations, including women and children;
  • Monitoring the environments in which we live, work and play;
  • Preparing for and responding to local, state, and national emergencies such as pandemic influenza, bioterrorism and natural disasters.

Tests performed in public health laboratories include:

  • Screening for sexually transmitted diseases (Chlamydia, GC, syphilis, HIV)
  • Screening for inborn errors in newborns (PKU, congenital hypothyroidism, sickle cell disease, MCAD)
  • Diagnostic testing for:
    • Tuberculosis
    • Hepatitis A, B, C
    • Influenza
    • Hantavirus
    • Ova and parasites
    • Norovirus
  • Reference Testing
    • Serotyping microbiology isolates (E. coli, Salmonella, N. meningitidis)
  • Epidemiologic surveillance testing
    • DNA fingerprinting of microbiology isolates
    • Antimicrobial susceptibility trends
    • West Nile Virus activity
    • Molecular subtyping of Influenza A looking for novel viruses
  • Testing for agents of bioterrorism
    • Routine testing and real-time PCR assays for anthrax, tularemia, and plague

Public health laboratorians strive to protect the health and welfare of all the residents of the states in which we live. A career in public health is rewarding and fulfilling.