5 Questions with Harmeet Kaur
June 28, 2017
Dr. Harmeet Kaur is a senior microbiologist in Placer County’s public health laboratory and coordinates the lab’s preparedness testing program, including emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. She helps supervise a team that, any day of the week, could test samples for everything from rabies to measles to anthrax. The lab serves several nearby counties, as well.
Kaur was recently accepted into a fellowship program called LabAspire, sponsored by the California Department of Public Health. The two-year program starts in July and will allow her to gain additional administrative and technical skills needed to lead a public health laboratory, as the state is facing a shortage of qualified directors. She shared some thoughts on this honor and her exciting work.
Tell us a bit about your background and your path to Placer County.
My education was in India (at Panjab University and the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research). I came to the U.S. to join my husband after I finished my Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular biology in 2007. I joined Cleveland Clinic as a postdoctoral research fellow for two years. There, we were doing eye research using rabbits as models, studying the corneal wound healing process following Lasik surgeries. Then we moved to California, and I worked as a lab manager at Touro University in Vallejo and later as a postdoctoral research fellow at U.C. Davis. At Touro University, I focused on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), studying innovative drug therapies that would prevent binding of HIV to human immune cells. At U.C. Davis, I worked on projects studying the disease pathogenesis of vascular biology, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. It was totally different at each place — with research, the more you do, the more you learn!
I learned a lot. But I was always interested in pursuing microbiology as a career, even though I ended up doing research not related to microbiology. It was all good exposure, but I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted something in microbiology. Someone introduced me to the field of public health microbiology and the certification process, so I got my certificate and came here to Placer to do my six-month training. That was in 2014, and then I was offered a full-time microbiologist position the lab. Later, in 2015, I was promoted to senior microbiologist and bioterrorism coordinator, preparing our lab to deal with existing and emerging threats and bioterrorism emergencies.
What appealed to you about working in public health?
I like the feeling that every day is a new challenge. It’s challenging because you don’t know what’s coming next. Every day we see something exciting and I learn a lot. Also, public health is a field that affects everybody. It’s our responsibility to serve the public. If they need us or in case of any emergency situations — like a foodborne illness outbreak, for example — we are here. We truly provide a service.
What are some of the interesting things you see in your day-to-day work?
There are a couple of examples that spring to mind.
We recently had a bat sent to us from one of the county laboratories that we serve. It had made contact with two little kids. We started getting calls at something like four o’clock on a Friday evening requesting emergency rabies testing. The bat was delivered the next day, and two of our microbiologists came in that Saturday to perform the rabies testing. It was a long day. Unfortunately, the bat tested positive for rabies. Our microbiologists reported the results right away and the doctors were able to begin treatment on the kids.
Another weekend, there was a measles case from Nevada County and the health officer requested that we do emergency testing. The measles is very contagious and spreads from person to person. I came in and did the test on the suspected measles specimen, and it came back positive. They were able to take measures to protect the public and anyone who had come in contact with that patient.
I like that we can offer that kind of help in emergency situations. These kinds of tests to diagnose rabies, measles, anthrax and more can only be done in specialized labs like ours, and you need very specialized training to handle the highly contagious samples.
What do you hope to gain from the LabAspire fellowship program?
I’ll still be here in Placer County, but I think it's a great platform for me to understand more about this field. I will move toward a more global understanding of the workings of a public health lab. I’ll learn more management and leadership skills, and more about regulation and the financial functions.
It’s going to be exciting and challenging. It’s a huge responsibility.
Your son has also gained somewhat of a reputation among public health staff. Tell us about him.
Guntas is eight and a half, and he’ll be in fourth grade this year. Last year, he tagged along for a community STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) expo at Chapa-De Indian Health, and he was explaining everything about ticks and Lyme disease to the other kids and community members coming through. What the ticks do, how they bite, all of it! He likes to learn about science and do experiments — he does all that fun stuff at home also. He picks it up on his own; I really don’t do anything!
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