What it is like to work for a state health service

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For this week’s column, I interviewed Alejandra Maldonado, epidemiology manager and toxicologist at Utah Department of Health to find out more about his professional career.

Maldonado grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho, a place known for its potatoes. (Known as the potato capital of the world, it even has a museum is dedicated to them.)

Like many children, Maldonado loved animals, so she wanted to become a veterinarian very early on. After graduating from high school, she attended Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and majored in biology. There was a good STEM program, she said, and helped her learn more about different science careers.

“My parents are both immigrants from Mexico. I don’t come from a traditional background – where a lot of doctors. have parents who were also in STEM, ”she said.

Alejandra Maldonado obtained a doctorate. in Wildlife Ecotoxicology from Texas A&M. His first job in the state was with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Today, she works for the Utah Department of Health.

From biology to environmental sciences

While at Carroll College, she learned about research conducted by Tyrone Hayes, professor at the University of California at Berkeley. The Hayes lab was studying the effects of atrazine, a common herbicide, and its effect on the endocrine system in frogs. Inspired by her work, she decided to take her major from biology to environmental sciences and to do research.

“My teachers have supported me a lot. I told them I wanted to do an independent (senior) project, and they helped me set it up. I did a little series of 2, 4-D frog shows, ”she said.

During her final year at university, she also did an internship with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in the monitoring section. She was then hired by the ministry as a full-time environmental field technician. Maldonado worked there for two years.

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences (with minors in biology and chemistry), she joined in 2009 that of Miguel Mora laboratory at Texas A&M University, which focuses on how pollutants, pesticides, metals and other contaminants affect birds. His thesis focused on persistent organic pollutants in migratory songbirds.

“I had to do fieldwork to collect birds from Mexico, Costa Rica and Texas to see if there were differences in contaminant levels throughout their migratory cycle,” he said. she declared.

She got her doctorate. in wildlife ecotoxicology in 2018.

Explore non-academic careers

High school left Maldonado exhausted, she said, which affected her both physically and mentally. Initially, she explored avian ecotoxicology and found that she was still predominantly white and male, and she didn’t want to get stuck on the “postdoc treadmill”. So she decided it was time to consider career options outside of academia.

“I could always go back if I wanted to, and I just wanted something where I could just work and have my hours,” she said.

She applied for federal, state and industry positions, and a friend put her in touch with a colleague Society for the Advancement of Chicano / Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) member who knew his advisor and worked in Utah.

Maldonado spoke to this new contact to find out more about an available position with the Utah Department of Health, applied for and got it.

A day in the life

As a state toxicologist, Maldonado works on a variety of environmental health topics, such as emerging contaminants of concern, fish and game consumption advisories, children’s environmental health, and air quality issues. and water. Throughout her day, she says, she reads scientific articles, textbooks and literature reviews for her various projects. She also sits on various boards and committees and meets with stakeholders regarding environmental public health issues in Utah.

Maldonado is also responsible for epidemiology for the APPLETREE program, which assesses and responds to environmental public health issues. According to the program’s website, “These tasks include public health assessments, health consultations, exposure surveys, health education and community participation.”

For APPLETREE, Maldonado leads a team that assesses the public health risks posed by environmental hazards across Utah, such as Superfund sites and other contaminants.

Coming from a background in wildlife toxicology, Maldonado said, she didn’t expect to ever work in public health. But leaving academia has allowed him to better reconcile professional and private life. She noted that she can now work remotely, including on days when the air quality is poor.

Advice for job seekers

For those of you considering a career in state public health agencies or related departments, here are his tips:

  • Believe in yourself: “Find parallels between the job duties and your education, and be confident in your answers,” she said. “I think a lot of women tend to downplay their qualifications and experience when they apply. So be bold.

  • Focus on your transferable skills: Look at all the experiences you have gained, especially experience which includes translating complex information and solving problems. Even though Maldonado no longer works in a lab, she said, the knowledge she has gained helps her on a daily basis: “I look at the data and understand how it is collected, why it is important and how it interacts. with the intersection of the environment. and public health.

  • Learn how to communicate science to the public: Much of Maldonado’s work involves translating complex sciences for the public. Sometimes she gives presentations for stakeholders and partners. For example, she had to explain to the public the health risks associated with a recent proliferation of cyanobacteria and with vaping. “(Communicating) is something scientists need help with. The average person cannot read our scientific papers. This is a problem, “she said. She recommends consulting the Clear writing center for tips on translating your science into plain language. (The hub is hosted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and was developed by the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for the Registry of Toxic Substances and Diseases.)

The application process

Maldonado, she shared with me what to expect when applying for jobs in the state.

  • Additional questions and ranking: The hiring manager adds additional questions to the job posting on the state website. Each candidate is ranked numerically based on their years of experience. “I counted my years of graduate school as part of this experience, and I don’t think everyone does,” she said.

  • Self evaluation: Provide detailed examples. When she applied for her current job, she spoke about organizing presentations, her experiences in research, teaching and leadership. It helped her stand out, she said.

  • Maintenance : Candidates who pass the examination cycle move on to the interview stage with the jury. The state also conducts a pay equity audit, based on location, education, and years of experience. “My boss (later) informed me that some of the rankings of previous candidates and some people on paper looked better than me… I managed to beat them by being really prepared for the interview,” a- she declared.


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