Career Snapshots with Rodney E. Rohde
Michael Schubert interviews Rodney E. Rohde
Rodney E. Rohde
Regents’ Professor, Texas State University System
University Distinguished Chair and Professor, Clinical Laboratory Science
Texas State University, USA
Tell us about your journey to the clinical lab…
I went through an undergraduate degree in microbiology and followed that up with a Master’s degree in virology, where I did actual wet lab research on poliovirus and antiviral proteins. With those two degrees, I thought I was going to hop right into the medical laboratory at a hospital – and that’s very difficult to do without an MLS or specialist credential.
Instead, I went to the Department of Health in Austin and fortunately found a career path. I became a public health microbiologist in 1992 and spent a decade there. It was a wonderful experience. I was able to work in newborn screens and eventually moved into virology, where we did cell culture, CPE analysis, monoclonal antibody typing, and even some early PCR work for all types of viruses. That was really great training. It was during this time that I started recognizing people with “med tech” or “medical lab professional” on their name tags. I was quickly educated by these individuals that these were unique credentials that allowed them to practice as medical laboratory scientists. Immediately, I documented my working experience and sat for the SV – Specialist in Virology. That got me my first credential.
In the meantime, I began to work on rabies and arboviruses. This is a story I really like to tell because it was a unique position at the Department of Health that allowed me to work about 50 percent of the time as a bench-level molecular epidemiologist and spend the rest of my time doing fieldwork with epidemiologists. In 1994, Texas was experiencing two rabies epizootics – a public health emergency called by the governor – so we embarked on an oral rabies vaccination program. It sounds weird now, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic we’re experiencing, but in 1994, we started aerially distributing recombinant rabies vaccine to wildlife all over south Texas and parts of west central Texas to immunize coyotes, foxes, and other canines. And up to that time, we had had a couple of human deaths and thousands of animals succumbing to the disease. Within about six or seven years, we had eliminated canine rabies from Texas. That really whet my appetite early on for international public health experience.
After that, I did a couple of visiting scientist internships at CDC, trained with some of the world’s greatest rabies virologists, and started the Reference Laboratory for Rabies Virus Typing lab at the Department of Health in Austin. That’s really where I got my start in virology.
In 2002, I had the opportunity to transition back into academia and back to my alma mater, Texas State University. And here I am now, having worked my way up through the professor ranks to sit as Chair and Regents’ Professor for the Clinical Lab Science program at Texas State University.
Can you share some career highlights with us?
Public health is a wonderful career path for medical laboratorians. It’s an area in which you often can work on big events and outbreaks – and, certainly, working on the oral rabies vaccination program is a major highlight of my career. I still work on rabies; I published a book back at the beginning of the pandemic on clinical aspects of rabies.
Another thing that was really cool for me was working on a rapid response team. We would go out and work areas of Texas when they had experienced a hantavirus-related death. We would collect rodents, then do necropsies to look for hantaviruses in and around areas of death. We did plague collections; we did different types of mosquito collections to look for arboviruses; we did all sorts of surveillance projects that were fantastic for my career.
More recently, some of the highlights of my career have been working with students and doing research into antibiotic resistance (one of my other primary research areas is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). I’m also an advocate and passionate supporter of the medical lab. As we all know, others need to know about what we do – so that teaching and mentoring component in the latter part of my career here at Texas State has truly been a highlight for me.
Why haven’t more people considered public health careers in the past – and do you think this is changing?
Back in 1992, you, you didn’t really hear about public health a lot in the world of microbiology and virology. Most people thought of research or perhaps industry. I think what has helped, obviously, are these ongoing threats around public health – whether it’s water, like we saw in Flint, Michigan; West Nile virus, which swept our country back in the early 1990s; anthrax (you might remember the anthrax issues back around early 2000); avian influenza; I can just go on and on. Certainly, the current pandemic has put a big spotlight on public health, from the laboratory all the way up through the programmatic areas of control and prevention.
Public health is absolutely a wonderful career path. I often tell my students I consider myself a hybrid professional; I have one foot in the world of public health and one foot in the world of medical laboratory health care. You really can’t have one without the other; it’s just that public health is a little less “stat.” In the hospital, things are all about turnaround times and rapid testing. In public health, you still want to get the answer, but you are typically given a little more time to work on problematic cases and global issues.
What’s your favorite part of your work?
Again, I really have to focus on the students. The most interesting and fun aspect of my career is involving students in my research and advocacy efforts around what I do in antibiotic resistance, as well as introducing them to things like explainer articles. Integrating students’ learning frameworks for writing and speaking… looking for internships and fellowships… it’s really exciting for me, because others did that for me back when I was a student, so I’m trying to pay it forward a little bit. Teaching, mentoring, conducting research, and working with students and colleagues and alumni are still the highlights of my career.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve experienced in your career?
I’m going to go back to my public health days because, again, when I came out of two degrees, I never in my life dreamed I would be working in the world of rabies and public health. Rabies is truly a unique experience. For example, what most people don’t realize is that testing for rabies means that you are almost always going to be using brain material. Unfortunately, that often means animals that have succumbed to the disease or have been captured and euthanized for testing are sent to public health departments around the country. Austin is no different. On any given day, especially in the summer months (when things got warm and rabies spread a little more rapidly because of exposure to people outdoors), we could have up to 100 animal heads shipped to us (via Greyhound bus, believe it or not!) in containers. Part of my early training was how to do necropsy. I never thought I would learn how to do an autopsy basically on an animal head – how to open the skull properly, how to extract the brain in different components that needed testing, and also how to deal with the crazy things people would send in. For example, animal heads in paint cans that had been welded shut or bats in all sorts of clothing people had used to trap them. It would liven up the morning in the rabies necropsy lab when we received those types of samples!
When I was on the oral rabies vaccine program, we were often out in the field deep in south Texas along with 30–50 people from the health department, the CDC, the military, the Texas National Guard, a variety of wildlife biologist, lot of veterinarians, and even Canadians – the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resource would send their Twin Otter aircraft for us to utilize. I would sometimes spend from dawn to dusk flying around south Texas distributing vaccines. We have literally flown millions and millions of miles and dozens of times around the globe setting that bait out. It was a wonderful time; we stayed in small towns all around south Texas and made some lifelong friendships across borders with Canada and elsewhere. Those memorable times in my public health career really set the stage for my appetite for international work.
What one key thing would you like to share about what you do?
It’s incumbent upon people like us, who are in educational paths and clinical areas, to mentor and challenge new professionals to think about how they will advocate for not only themselves, but also the profession. We absolutely are in a crisis mode with staffing; from burnout to retirements to salary issues, we’ve heard all of the different components around these shortages. I truly think we’re entering an area of national concern, because we conduct over 13 million tests a year. On top of that, with a pandemic, we’ve done another million-plus test and our workforce is tired. We’ve got to find ways to get the word out that this is a fantastic career path with many, many opportunities to branch into different areas. People in our line of work just need to learn how to advocate and put themselves out there a little bit – whether it’s writing explainer articles, conducting interviews like we’re doing today, doing podcasts, or just talking with schools or churches or other organizations to spread the word so that individuals who don’t choose medical school understand that there are other really great career paths in these areas.