Interview with Antony Schwartz, Ph.D., SM (NRCM), CBSP (ABSA), Biosafety Officer, Responsible Official and Director, Biological Safety Division, Duke University
The “Career Pathways—Explore the Possibilities” series highlights different professions pursued by scientists like you. This interview focuses on a biosafety officer, someone who helps to prevent personal, community, and environmental exposure to potentially infectious agents or biohazards. Dr. Antony Schwartz, Ph.D., was part of the National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Program (NBBTP), which is now known as the NIH NBBTP/IRTA Fellowship. Read this interview with Dr. Schwartz to learn more about his journey to becoming a biosafety officer.
What is your current role at Duke University?
I work as the biosafety officer for Duke University and Duke University Health System. I’m also the director for the Biological Safety Division and assistant director for the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office at Duke. Additionally, I serve as the responsible official for the Duke Select Agent Program and as the institutional contact for Dual Use Research of Concern. Since 2019, I have held an appointment as an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Duke School of Medicine. In these roles, I have oversight of programs that have been implemented to protect Duke personnel from biological hazards in the workplace.
What is your favorite aspect of this role?
What I love about the field of biosafety in general is that every day is different. We encounter interesting cutting-edge research projects, unique risk assessment problems and emerging pathogens that require us to be very dynamic in our thinking and innovative in our response to mitigating these biological hazards. Whether it’s working with recombinant nucleic acids or select agents and toxins or clinical biosafety issues, the range of puzzles I get to solve is the best part of this job. In doing so, I get to collaborate with a diverse group of passionate people from whom I learn so much. I also like the fact that my role directly or indirectly plays a part in advancing science, finding cures, treating patients successfully, and above all, in getting our personnel home safely at the end of the day.
Describe the transition from being a fellow in the NBBTP at NIH to working in your current role?
Immediately after completing the NBBTP Fellowship, I worked as a contractor for the NIH as a safety and health specialist in the Biorisk Management Branch of the Division of Occupational Health and Safety (DOHS). In this role, I performed various duties but mainly focused on assisting with the operations of the NIH Select Agent Program, reviewing IBC registrations, and assisting with running the National BSL4 Training Center’s BSL4 laboratories and training program. Subsequently, I became a federal employee at NIH where I worked as the responsible official (RO) for the NIH Select Agent Program and solely focused on my RO duties. During this time, I managed a registration of laboratorians, animal care workers, and security and maintenance personnel to ensure federal regulatory compliance. It involved enrolling personnel into the program with proper background checks and biosurety clearances, maintaining inventory of high consequence pathogens, ensuring adequate functioning of our facilities, and preparing for and facilitating federal inspections, among other tasks. These experiences gave me the skills necessary for my current position as the director of biological safety at Duke University.
How did your fellowship as part of NBBTP prepare you for your current role?
There are no other opportunities like the NBBTP Fellowship out there. It is a great program that really immerses you into the world of biosafety, biosecurity, biocontainment, and laboratory safety. In the two years I spent as a fellow, I conducted laboratory audits, performed injury investigations, reviewed research protocols and standard operating procedures, and worked on various complex projects that required thorough risk assessment and technical skills to put mitigation measures in place to protect NIH employees. The fellowship provided that hands-on experience necessary to gain the confidence needed to perform these functions elsewhere. The beauty of working at NIH and within DOHS is that we get to see different aspects of a safety program and not just biosafety. We were able to shadow and learn from experts in industrial hygiene, food safety, community health, etc. Our training and experiential learning helped us go beyond biosafety and become a well-rounded safety professional, which has helped me in my current position.
What was your favorite part about being an NBBTP fellow and working at NIH?
It is really hard to pick a favorite part about being a NBBTP Fellow because it was just a great experience all around. I enjoyed travelling to various locations for training, conferences and developmental assignments and really cherished the valuable relationships built with mentors at DOHS and other NIH employees with whom I’m still in touch with. I really loved the fact that I was part of a fellowship program that let me explore various intersections of science and safety with hands-on projects, practical on-the-job training, and real-world experience as biosafety professionals. I’m very thankful to Deborah E. Wilson, DrPH, SM (NRCM), CBSP, RADM, U.S. Public Health Service (Ret.) (former director of DOHS and NBBTP Fellowship) and the NIH and NIAID leadership for having the vision to proactively set up a world-class program like the NBBTP Fellowship and for their continued support of the program.
Do you have any advice for current NIAID fellows who are interested in the field of biosafety?
Biosafety is a good field for anyone who is interested in being involved with scientific advancements but who doesn’t want to be at the bench doing hands-on research. As a biosafety professional, you will do risk assessments on emerging technologies and diseases as the science progresses almost daily. This way you will not feel removed from the science that originally ignited your passion for a career in the sciences. However, the variety of situations you encounter and problems you get to solve is what makes biosafety unique. You will also be able to see immediately the results of your actions, which is different from most bench work. Being a biosafety professional doesn’t mean you won’t get to do research projects. In fact, applied biosafety research needs more scientists to get involved and publish more evidence to support safe practices and procedures! Also, once you’re in biosafety, you’ll find other areas of interest in biosecurity, biocontainment, policy, communications, etc. So if you are someone who is curious, proactive and passionate about using your scientific knowledge to make a difference in people’s lives, biosafety is the field for you. Go for it!
Is it okay if current NIAID fellows contact you with questions?
Most definitely, I’m happy to answer questions and share my knowledge about the NBBTP Fellowship and the field of biosafety in general. My email is email@example.com.