From Skunk Heads to Baby's Blood

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

Biology Alumni

"Everyone in the building knows when there's a skunk head in there," joked R. Cary Saunders '09, pointing to a stack of coolers sitting just outside a glass- enclosedlaboratory. Bold-faced type reading "RABiES" was imprinted on the tape holding the containers closed.

Saunders and three other Hampden-Sydney alumni are scientists at the Richmond-based Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS), where more than 200 employees of the state lab test everything from fertilizer to drinking water to the recently severed heads of bats, raccoons, skunks, and other potential carriers of rabies. The virus, the alumni explained, is detected in the central nervous system, and so the heads must be removed before the scientists can take samples for testing.

Those are just a few of the many tests that the laboratory performs to identify bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals, radioactivity, and other harmful substances and dangerous properties sometimes found in food, in water, and in the environment.

Whenever there is an outbreak of salmonella in lettuce or tomatoes, for example, it is the employees of DCLS who perform tests to assist epidemiologists in tracking down the point source of the contaminated product using the samples sent in from different locations.

But that is still only the beginning of the broad range of tests that DCLS performs. "We do about 7 million tests per year," said Dr. Christopher Waggener '03. "We are a consolidated laboratory, so while other states separate their different labs for testing, we combine them here in our one lab. We test everything from motor fuels to toxins to newborn babies." Every baby in Virginia has its blood drawn within two days of its birth, he explained, and the lab tests each sample for 28 metabolic and genetic disorders that can be effectively treated-if they are identified early enough. For this test, the lab has a turnaround time of only one or two days, despite the hundreds of blood cards sent in each day.

The lab plays a key role in tracking flu epidemics and tuberculosis, testing feed mixtures for farmers, monitoring the pollution levels in river water, and helping state and federal agencies identify white powders and other unknown substances at crime scenes. They even check the weights of the numbered balls used by the Virginia Lottery. The list goes on. if something can be tested, then DCLS probably has the equipment and specialized personnel needed to analyze it successfully.

The overall mission is to protect the people of Virginia and beyond, and these four Hampden- Sydney alumni are on the frontlines to make sure that we and our families can live happy, healthy lives.

The Men of DCLS

WaggenerDr. Waggener is one of only five top-ranking lead scientists in the Commonwealth. He graduated from H-SC just over a dozen years ago, and today he is in charge of the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) operations at DCLS, serving as the national training coordinator for the organization. He teaches courses on how to detect biological, chemical, and radiological contamination in our food. His primary role is to show other scientists from around the country the latest techniques for identifying these substances to make sure the food we eat is safe.

He attributes some of his success to his alma mater. "When i was in graduate school, I was way ahead of my peers in terms of basic lab science and knowledge." he said. "Some of my peers had never touched a pipette before. And i had the opportunity to have independent research with professors, such as Dr. [Edward] Devlin. it translated very well into my graduate and post-graduate work. Just getting that hands-on and mentoring experience my peers didn't have, that one-on-one research with my professors, was really key. ... it helped me in graduate school and it's helped me here."

T. Bryan Tims '98 is a senior scientist who started at DCLS in 2003. He currently works in the molecular laboratory, where he both runs tests and oversees testing in a supervisory role. He makes sure the samples are appropriate for the needed tests, helps other scientists troubleshoot problems, reviews results for accuracy, and helps develop and write policies and procedures.

The molecular lab in which he works uses DNA- and RNA-based testing. Most of the samples are blood, stool, urine, and swabs from various areas of the human body. Tims uses genetic fingerprinting to identify pathogens such as the Norovirus, E. coli, B. pertussis (whooping cough), and other infectious diseases in the samples sent in from hospitals and government agencies. Some of his studies are done to see if our vaccines are effective or if levels of infection are increasing because of low vaccination rates. Also, the molecular lab has the equipment and training needed to respond to new and rapidly emerging threats, such as Ebola and MERS.

SaundersHe also believes the College helped him. "Hampden-Sydney wasn't a training program. I didn't walk in here [to DCLS] saying, ‘I know how to run all these different instruments and run these tests exactly this way.' And that's good, because science changes so quickly. Instead i understood the concepts. I knew how to think about them. I understood the background knowledge-so that just because I was doing something different one day, I was not lost. I could think. I could troubleshoot. For me, I had that foundational knowledge that i needed to pick it all up and keeping moving forward. A lot of people can't do that."

R. Cary Saunders '09 works in the "FFF" department-food, feed, and fertilizer. Many of the samples he tests come from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. For a food sample, he'll "digest it down, filter it out," and use a microscope, pH tests, or toxin tests, among others, to identify and measure any foreign objects or substances in the food to make sure they remain within allowable limits. For animal feed testing, Saunders checks to make sure that farmers' cows, chickens, and other livestock are eating quality feed that is free from metal shavings or other particles that could harm or kill our primary sources of meat.

Along that same line, he analyzes feeds and fertilizers that are sold to Virginia farmers to make sure they contain the labeled amounts of feed mixtures or fertilizing chemicals. One of the more interesting tests is the "combustion analysis," in which he drops a measured sample into a 1000° furnace, vaporizing the material, and then runs the gas through scrubbers and detectors to measure nitrogen and protein levels.

He believes the science programs at Hampden-Sydney helped prepare him for his career. "It was the structure of the lab-science program at school that helped. ... Having a good basic idea of what a lab is and does was important. ... in my microbiology class with Dr. [Anne] Lund, for example, some of the stuff i did in her class was the same stuff i do here."

TimsThe fourth H-SC scientist doesn't work in the actual laboratories at DCLS, but his training and knowledge are crucial to other laboratories' abilities to operate in the Commonwealth. DeWitt Casler '00 is one of only six laboratory certification officers for Virginia, and it is his job to visit and examine individual labs in Virginia and elsewhere to make sure they meet requirements for personnel training, testing procedures, methodology, and reporting practices.

Most labs he visits are drinking water and wastewater laboratories, which send their test results to the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. it is imperative that these regulating bodies obtain accurate test results, because they're making regulatory decisions which directly affect the quality of our drinking water and the proper handling of our wastewater in different towns and counties.

Although he majored in biology, Casler was quick to identify the Hampden-Sydney Rhetoric Program as the most beneficial course he took while a student on the Hill.

"Writing reports is a significant part of what i do," he said. "Having the training to articulate something clearly and concisely has been very helpful to me. it saves me a lot of time. Some of the reports we issue are [quite] long, and we have regulatory timelines that we have to hit in a specific amount of time."

Guardians of Health

People usually take it for granted that their food is safe to eat, that their water is clean, and that they don't suffer from one of the thousands of horrible diseases that exist in this world. They often fail to realize the mountains of work and research that scientists have to complete on a daily basis to make sure we can live safe, healthy, and prosperous lives.

These four Hampden-Sydney men play key roles in ensuring that Virginia remains a safe place to live and to raise families. They are guardians of our health and well being. With the school's well-known purpose of forming good men and good citizens, it is almost no wonder so many of them ended up at DCLS.