Rutgers graduate combats Zika virus in the lab
After the Zika virus appeared in the U.S., affecting roughly 600 patients in New York City to date, one Rutgers graduate knew it was time to help.
Jennifer Rakeman, a biotechnology major at Cook College, is now the assistant commissioner laboratory director at the New York City Public Health Laboratory.
Late in 2015 and early in 2016 the lab started preparations to diagnose patients with Zika, which is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, Rakeman said.
Although the mosquitoes are not in New York, Rakeman said preparation was necessary because people are constantly traveling to and from New York City.
Rakeman's many responsibilities includes ensuring that all of the testing done at the laboratory meets government regulatory and reporting requirements.
“New York City has many people that visit or have immigrated from countries that have been affected by Zika, so we know we have a lot of travelers that go back and forth between New York City and those areas, so we started gearing up very early and started preparing in the laboratories to perform testing to diagnose patients with Zika,” she said.
The Zika virus has been known for decades, but it did not emerge as a major public health threat until this year. Zika has affected around 600 total patients in the city, including around 70 pregnant women, she said. The patients in every case had recently traveled and all cases were associated with travel.
There has been no local transmission in New York yet, she said.
The laboratory always follows up with patients after they have been tested to monitor their results, she said. Dealing with a new disease such as Zika means continuously researching and processing new information.
“We don’t really know everything yet, which is part of the challenge of handling this newly emerged virus,” Rakeman said.
While Zika is the most recent public health response that the New York City Public Health Laboratory has been involved in, it is only a small portion of the testing run through the oldest and largest municipal lab in the world.
In recent years, Rakeman directed the lab as it tested for Ebola and Legionnaires’ disease. The laboratory also runs routine testing for sexually transmitted diseases, sexual health clinics and tuberculosis testing.
One of the challenges of Rakeman’s job is keeping the laboratory staffed with appropriately trained people. There is a national shortage of graduates from medical technology and other similar types of programs who can do diagnostic testing, she said.
“A big challenge is recruiting people into the field of public health in general and public health laboratory science. It’s a wonderful place and once we get people in, they’re converted,” she said.
The laboratory has programs with local colleges and opportunities for people to visit the laboratory, and the next day students go and change their major so that they can be a medical technology major and other majors where they can get into public health laboratory later, she said.
Rakeman’s interest in laboratory research was sparked while she was an undergraduate student at Rutgers. She transferred from Rutgers College to become a biotechnology major at Cook College, which is now the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
“That was a major that was for people that wanted to do research. There were a lot of hands on lab classes,” said Rakeman. “I really loved it. And within that major I was able to focus on microbial biotechnology and that’s where I really got interested in studying bacteria and other microbes.”
As a biotechnology major Rakeman worked with professors whom she still stays in touch with today through the George H. Cook Research Project, she said.
“I spent a lot of time in Lipman Hall in the laboratory working on bacterium. It was really inspirational to me,” she said.
After graduating from Rutgers in 1994, Rakeman received a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington--Seattle.
Years later she moved back to New York and started working for the New York Department of Health in 2009 as the public health laboratory director in microbiology, and has held her current position since 2012.
“Working in public health can be a struggle but we do really great things. We save lives 8.5 million at a time, it’s incredibly rewarding,” Rakeman said.
Kayon Amos is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in human resources. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.