Dr. Harbourt completed his PhD in Toxicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the guidance of Dr. Philip Smith, where his research focused on the correlation of toxicity of mycophenolate with quantification of uridine disphosphate glucuronosyl transferase (UGT) enzymes and transporters using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. After UNC, Dr. Harbourt completed the National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Program (NBBTP) which is a two-year fellowship run by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Division of Occupational Health and Safety based out of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD that gives individuals professional experience in biosafety and biocontainment. Upon completion of the NBBTP fellowship, Dr. Harbourt joined the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where he is Chief of the Biosafety Division.
After you finished your PhD at UNC, how did you find your way to the NBBTP Fellowship?
I was set to graduate in 2009, so I was looking for my first post-graduate school job during an extremely difficult job market. I knew I would be defending not long after the 2009 SOT Annual Meeting, so I really took advantage of the SOT Job Board and networking events at the conference. While at the meeting, I came across a representative from the Scientific Advisory Board of the NBBTP fellowship who was there to recruit on behalf of the program. I always had an interest in infectious disease research, but obviously coming from the field of toxicology, it was a much bigger jump career-wise than for someone who earned their PhD in something like microbiology or virology. I spoke with the NBBTP representative at the booth, learned all about the fellowship, realized it was something I was really interested in and decided to apply.
Tell me about your time in the NBBTP Fellowship
I started the NBBTP fellowship in January of 2010. The program is based in Bethesda, but rotations are conducted all across the country. However, the first year is predominantly classroom work, where we learned the principles of biosafety, how biosafety facilities work and how issues can arise. The 2nd year of the fellowship is primarily comprised of short rotations, or internships, at biosafety level (BSL)-3 and BSL-4 laboratories throughout the U.S. I was able to do rotations all across the country including at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, at Rocky Mountain National Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, and at the USDA laboratory in the DC area. The majority of rotations were at BSL-3 laboratories, but I spent quite a bit of time rotating at the Rocky Mountain National Laboratories, which operates at both BSL-3 and BSL-4.
That’s so interesting! So what do you do now?
After I completed the NBBTP fellowship, I took a position at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) as a civilian federal employee. At USAMRIID, I’m the Biosafety Division Chief, meaning I’m responsible for ensuring the research involving potentially highly infectious organisms is conducted safely and that protocols in all of laboratories, including BSL-3 and BSL-4, are properly followed. In addition, my work also often involves attending local meetings to represent USAMRIID facilities, inspecting each laboratory on a periodic basis, writing up protocols for the laboratories, and ensuring that everything in the BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories is conducted safely and effectively.
What is the career outlook for the Biosafety Field?
It’s really a great time to be joining the biosafety field. According to federal law, every BSL-3 and BSL-4 is required to have at least one Biosafety officer, and a large fraction of biosafety officers in the United States joined the field in the 1970s and 1980s, meaning they’re now nearing retirement. In addition, due to the increased emphasis of biodefense research resulting in the construction of a number of new biocontainment laboratories in the early 2000s, the demand for readily trained biosafety professionals continues to expand while the supply has not been able to keep up. What this means for anyone interested in the field is that there will be a growing need for young, well-trained biosafety officers in the near future. Unfortunately, there are very few programs that train scientists to become Biosafety Officers, which is why the NBBTP fellowship is such a great program.
So are all Biosafety Jobs through the Federal Government?
A large number of biosafety officer jobs are through the federal government, but there are plenty of positions at universities and in the pharmaceutical industry. With all of the pharmaceutical industry’s interest in treating highly infectious diseases and antibiotic resistant bacteria, which may require BSL-3 facilities, there will also be a significant number of biosafety positions outside of the federal government. Another thing to keep in mind with the field of biosafety is that similar to toxicology, it is very broad. You could be a biosafety professional your entire life and never step foot in a BSL-3 or BSL-4 laboratory if the focus of your facility is on an area like vaccine manufacturing and production or you could spend your entire career working in and around BSL-4 facilities if you wanted to work at a facility like USAMRIID. Similar to toxicology, the possibilities in your field are only limited by your own motivations and career path.
Do you have any advice for CiT students interested in getting into this field?
First off, I would have to say that it’s a very rewarding field. I’m often asked why do we have to do research on such deadly pathogens, and in my case, the answer is very simple. While some of the more exotic diseases we study at USAMRIID are not found in the United States, we have armed forces deployed all across the globe, where many of these pathogens are present. Additionally, as we saw in the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the globe is increasingly connected and we need to be able to have facilities that are capable of studying such highly infectious diseases to help combat outbreaks both abroad and domestically. In fact, every novel Ebola therapeutic that was used in the 2014 Ebola outbreak was handled or tested at some point in its developmental track at the USAMRIID facilities at Fort Dietrick prior to implementation.
I would say if you are attracted to this field, I would focus on your communication and presentation skills and to do your best to publish as often as possible. Additionally, within the biosafety field, there is a great need for individuals with strong scientific backgrounds since all biosafety officers need to have the ability to understand the research undertaken within their facility enough to be able to interpret and mitigate risks associated with it and potentially communicate them with the general public. Lastly, if you truly are interested, I would highly recommend looking into the NBBTP fellowship or reach out to the American Biosafety Association International which regularly updates a Job Board with available positions.
About the author: Brett is a third-year Ph.D student in the Curriculum in Toxicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He works in the laboratories of Dr. Michael Madden and Dr. Joachim Pleil where he is researching in vitro methods to screen volatile chemicals for toxicity. In his free time, he enjoys fly fishing, backpacking, and watching Carolina Basketball.