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A Day in the Life – Biologist at the CDC

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Ashley Kessler, Staff Writer
October 30, 2011
Filed under Food & Culture

Shelley Campbell is a Biologist with the Viral Special Pathogens Branch in the Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology. Specifically, she works in the Molecular and Immunological Diagnostics Laboratory of her Branch. She processes and tests human and animal specimens from all over the world for Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Viruses as well as Hantaviruses and LCM (Lymphocytic Choriomeningitus) domestically.

Before my mom’s job at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), we had many small animals ranging from fish, snakes and bearded dragons, hamsters and guinea pigs, and a rabbit. One of the downsides to her new job is that we no longer can have those animals, though I do not think my mom minds our house smelling like a normal house instead of a barn.

She did not end up at the CDC when first applying for jobs. It took many years for her to build up her experience. She first started out at Emory University, and then moved up to the University of Georgia mostly doing research lab work. Her position now is a microbiologist in a BL4 lab at the CDC.

Campbell had to go through many security measures when hired for the job. Her job involves having access to and working with Select Agents, which are those agents that both HHS (Health and Human Services) and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) have determined to have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety. Before being permitted to work with these agents, she had to be subjected to a SRA (Security Risk Assessment). This was completed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Criminal Justice Information Services Division. She was fingerprinted and had to provide information for a five year background check.

Since she works with certain viruses and travels to different countries, she had to have multiple vaccinations, including small pox, Hepatitis A and B, Rabies, Typhoid, and Yellow Fever.

Campbell is one of a few who do all the lab work and sends it off to the people necessary. When asked about her not getting direct credit for all the work she does, she replies, “There are many ways in which my work, as well as the work of my colleagues, is recognized.  First of all, just a clean, unambiguous, result is the biggest reward I can get on a day to day basis.  I feel like this is the greatest contribution I can give to those who are anxiously waiting on results of a sick loved one.”

Her job requires travel when called for. An upcoming trip she will be attending will be to India. She says, “I enjoy it a great deal.  So far in my career I have only been to Uganda three times and South Africa once. Each trip is extremely different, challenging, and rewarding.  For instance, at one time I was collecting bats from a cave in a forest in Uganda that had pythons and cobras as residents. Another time I was working with sheep in South Africa on a vaccine for Rift Valley Fever.”

When doing lab work, she works in the BL4 laboratory. Working there requires her to get completely undressed; put on scrubs; tape her socks and inner gloves to the scrubs; wear a surgical cap and hearing protection; and put on a spacesuit which is connected to an air hose. When she comes out of the lab, she must take a three minute chemical shower while still in the suit, followed by a 3 minute water rinse. Then she must get completely undressed, take a regular shower and wash her hair and body. “This can, at times, get tedious but you do not take chances with the viruses that we work with.  Not only do I not want to risk an exposure to myself but I certainly don’t want to bring anything home to my family at night.” She takes the safety precautions very seriously.

Her day to day routine varies. One day she may be determining the genetic sequence of a Hantavirus strain from New York state, and the next day she could be logging in hundreds of swine blood samples from the Philippines. The priority for the diagnostic lab is always human cases.

She works with a group of five people in her diagnostic group, though one is currently serving in Iraq. She claims that they are a strong team who work together to get a complete picture of each case.

Her job is no walk in the park and takes much time and experience to get to where she is now.


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