Q&A with Jennifer Dale, PhD, MID alum and public health research scientist at the Minnesota Department of Health
March 08, 2023
CAROLYN AGURCIA-PARKER, DRPH, & EMILY RECH/MD ANDERSON UTHEALTH HOUSTON GRADUATE SCHOOL
Jennifer L. Dale, PhD, graduated from the Graduate School (then called the University of Texas Health Science Center Houston and MD Anderson Cancer Center Graduate School of Biological Sciences) in 2012 with a degree in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (currently known as Microbiology & Infectious Diseases). After obtaining her PhD, Dale went on to a postdoctoral position at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities before becoming a research scientist 3 at the Minnesota Department of Health Public Health Laboratory. The following Q&A highlights the path that Dale has taken to get to where she is today, and her work in outbreak response.
What ignited your passion for science?
I’ve always been inquisitive and want to find the answer to every question, which I believe is what made me gravitate toward science. Most science questions or hypotheses can be answered with experimentation. In junior high and high school, I got to exercise my inquisitive nature by participating in science fair projects, which evolved over the years from investigating which deli counter foods had the highest microbial content to whether the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (i.e. Tylenol) in combination with antibiotics decreased antibiotic efficacy. Attending a small school (14 students in my grade) allowed me to have the same science teacher throughout junior high and high school who was very supportive of my project ideas and encouraged my curious nature. I believe my science teacher was just as invested in my projects as I was, which made me even more passionate about research and ultimately contributed to my career path in microbiology.
What is your current position?
I’m a research scientist in the Public Health Laboratory at the Minnesota Department of Health within the microbiology unit of the infectious disease laboratory.
What was your path toward your current position?
When I was finishing my postdoctoral training at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, a fellowship opportunity to work in public health (PH) was brought to my attention. I knew I wanted to transition out of academia and into either government or industry; therefore, a fellowship within PH was ideal. The CDC launched the Antimicrobial Resistance Laboratory Network (AR Lab Network) and in collaboration with the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) established the antimicrobial resistance research fellowship. The goal of the AR fellowship was to detect and characterize antimicrobial resistant organisms and identify outbreaks of antimicrobial resistant diseases. I’ve had a passion for AR threats since high school, so this opportunity was perfect for me to pursue. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) was established as one of seven regional laboratories in the AR Lab Network, and in 2017 I joined the MDH as an AR fellow in the microbiology unit. By summer 2018, I was hired as a full-time employee within the microbiology unit at the MDH.
What research project are you working on currently and how did you choose your project?
Research projects in public health are based on need versus hypothesis. There is a need to optimize workflows, improve assay sensitivity, decrease the turn-around-time to obtain diagnostic results, and/or understand the dynamics of an outbreak. This means that public health projects find you instead of you seeking a research project, and you’re often involved in numerous projects simultaneously. A primary focus of my current work at the MDH is outbreak response. When certain antimicrobial resistant bacteria are identified in a healthcare setting and epidemiologists question if an outbreak is occurring, I use next generation sequencing and bioinformatics to determine if the bacterial isolates are related. The combination of lab results and epidemiology help guide response to an outbreak that could involve recommendations for improved infection prevention and control methods and/or further screening of a facility to understand if transmission is occurring. It is extremely rewarding work to participate in outbreak response, but also routine diagnostic testing, that has an immediate impact on patient care, which makes me continually invested in my work.
Why did you choose the Graduate School for your research education?
The Graduate School, specifically the microbiology and molecular genetics (now MID) program, had several investigators focused on infectious disease. My primary interests when pursuing a graduate education were to understand the mechanisms bacteria use to become infectious and how we, as scientists, could contribute to combatting these diseases. After interviewing with several faculty within the program, I quickly discovered how passionate they all were about their research and the collaborative nature of all faculty in the MID program. It was apparent that the MID faculty wanted the best for each student regardless of whether that student was in their lab or not. This investment in graduate student education was ultimately what made me choose the Graduate School and the MID program.
What goals do you have for your research career?
I’ve found my niche and that is in public health. My primary goal as a research scientist in public health is to stay on the cutting edge of diagnostic testing and method development. Public health work is a moving target, which makes my day-to-day goals change, but the ultimate goal of my career is to improve healthcare.
What has been your biggest success?
The first thing that comes to mind is SARS-CoV-2 testing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Viral work, besides occasionally using bacteriophage, has never been the focus of my work. However, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted focus for several researchers, especially those in public health. I was quickly transitioned to the virology unit where I used my expertise in molecular genetics to assist the lab in validating new assays to test for SARS-CoV-2. The urgency of rapid testing and response meant continually adapting to changes in assay methods and workflow. I spent approximately two years invested in SARS-CoV-2 method development and troubleshooting, workflow improvement, and training. Public health work during the pandemic was a collaborative effort and demonstrated the passion public health lab scientists have for their work. I was humbled and fortunate to work with such amazing colleagues, which is what made that time in my career my biggest success story.
What has been your biggest failure and how did you overcome it?
I use any failure, big or small, as an opportunity to learn. Most scientists will tell you that research is 90% failure and 10% success, which appears most evident as a graduate student when you need that “one last experiment” to graduate. However, I’ve never found there to be a huge failure that I can’t overcome or learn from, which makes this question difficult to answer. Instead, I’d say to not focus on the failures, but instead use them as an opportunity to improve and teach the next person so they don’t encounter the same mistakes.
What advice would you give to a first-year student?
Be patient. As a first-year student there’s a rush to find the lab, quickly develop your research aims, and obtain ground-breaking results. Know that you will find the lab that fits your personality and peaks your interest. Your research aims and results will come with time and patience, and if your aims or project changes multiple times, that’s okay too. Graduate school will be over before you know it, and you’ll wonder where the time went.
What’s something you like to do when you are not working in the lab?
I fill my free time with diverse activities including hiking, traveling and indoor activities during the frigid Minnesota winters like sewing and going to musicals.