The Laboratorian - Volume 2, Issue 1

The Laboratorian - Volume 2, Issue 1
Laboratorian Header logo

July 2010 - Volume 2, Issue 1

Article Index

- Healthiest Lab Award
- Radiological Laboratory
- Electron Microscopy
- H1N1 Data Analyzed


Our lead article celebrates the work of laboratorians to make every aspect of the Laboratory healthy and safe, as recognized through receipt of the 2010 APHL Healthiest Laboratory Award. This award recognizes not only the Laboratory's goal of promoting the health of the citizens of Texas but also our daily effort to keep our staff healthy and well.

This issue is packed with information. Water is something that most of us take for granted; learn more about what goes on “behind the scenes” in Texas’ Radiological Laboratory as they work to make sure our water is safe. Wonder with me at how we see the truly tiny in our article on electron microscopy. Learn about the work of one of our Public Health Interns, as she uses statistical analysis to make a difference, in the article on Analyzing H1N1 laboratory data.

As we enter our second year of publication, we would like to hear from you. What have you learned from us? What would you like to know? Please email your comments, ideas, and suggestions.

by Jimi Ripley-Black

DSHS Laboratory Receives APHL Healthiest Lab Award

Dr. Neill presents the APHL Healthiest Lab Award to Laboratory employees

On June 8, 2010 the Laboratory Services Section of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) received the Healthiest Lab Award, presented by the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). This award recognizes the DSHS Laboratory’s commitment to employee health and wellness and to protecting the environment. It was presented during the APHL 2010 Annual Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Healthiest Lab Award is part of a new APHL taskforce called the Healthiest Laboratory Initiative (HLI). This taskforce promotes personal health, environmental health, and policy. The HLI taskforce is sponsored by the APHL in partnership with HDR/CUH2A, a global science and technology design firm. The goals of the HLI are to foster the following:

  • Healthy personal choices for employees, members, and guests
  • Environmental responsibility
  • Initiatives related to promoting health
  • Focus on a more proactive, prevention-focused national discussion on health
  • Change in how we define a successful system, i.e., tracking measures of health and not disease
  • Determine how APHL can take a leadership role in engaging the broader laboratory community.

As one of the measures used to foster these goals, the HLI taskforce invited all APHL members to use a self-evaluation tool to asses the laboratory and foster environmental responsibility and healthy personal choices in the work place and beyond. The participating laboratories were then scored based on their answers. The top scoring laboratories were given an award plaque honoring the healthiest and greenest lab. The Healthiest Lab Award runner up was Arkansas Public Health Laboratory.

by Jimi Ripley-Black

Radiological Laboratory Testing Means Safe Water

We turn on our water taps and take it for granted that the water is safe. At the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Laboratory, the radiological team analyzes drinking water and a variety of environmental samples to ensure that individuals are not exposed to unsafe levels of radiation. These samples come from the public drinking water systems, nuclear power plants, the

Radiology team member does radium 228/226 isotopes preparation for drinking water

Pantex Weapons facility, uranium mining facilities, and various manufacturing plants in Texas.

The DSHS Radiological Laboratory, designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the state’s Principal State Drinking Water Laboratory, is expanding and increasing work load to better serve Texas. Radiochemical monitoring includes testing for gross alpha, gross beta, radium-226, radium-228, and uranium isotopes for approximately 80 percent of the public water systems in Texas. More than 1,500 drinking water samples are analyzed annually for radionuclides. The laboratory has also assisted other state drinking water programs by providing radiochemical testing services and analyst training.

Environmental radiochemical monitoring of nuclear power plants includes weekly testing of air filters and charcoal canisters from high volume air samplers located in the vicinity of the facility. Sediment and other monitoring samples are collected monthly for analysis from various locations in a radius of up to 10 miles from nuclear power plants. Other samples include fish, oysters, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. All of the nuclear power plant samples necessitate gamma analysis, including iodine-131, which requires immediate analysis to reach the desired detection limits. Testing of these samples also includes gross beta and tritium. The laboratory receives approximately 600 samples per year from these facilities.

Radiology team member prepares water samples for the filter and precipitate step (drop) of radium 228/226 testing

Environmental radiochemical monitoring at the Pantex Weapons facility is similar to that for nuclear power plants; however, it involves a different laboratory approach. Many of the same sample types are collected, but the monitored isotopes are different. Sample types include water, sediment, vegetation, and air filters. Approximately 100 samples per year are received from this facility. The required testing includes gamma isotopes, tritium, gross alpha, gross beta,

and specific alpha emitters such as plutonium and uranium isotopes. Most of these procedures take much longer to complete because they involve extensive chemical separation processes.

Texas is one of several states in the Southwest that has active uranium mining operations. The workload from the monitoring of mining operations is beginning to increase after several years of decline. Water, soil, and vegetation are the primary types of samples, although occasionally samples of beef have been analyzed. Approximately 100 samples per year are received from these facilities. The monitoring usually focuses on radium-226 and the uranium isotopes with occasional requests for isotopes in the thorium-232 series.

Many industries and manufacturing processes use radioactive sources in their operations, and the radiological team receives samples for analysis in conjunction with compliance inspections. This usually includes testing for gamma emitters, with the possibility of other radionuclides being required.

The DSHS Laboratory currently has a project underway to convert existing laboratory space into a fully functional second radiochemistry facility—capable of processing and analyzing samples containing elevated levels of radioactivity. This project will expand the analytical capacity of the laboratory in all areas of radiochemical testing and provide redundant capability in the event that the main laboratory becomes inoperable. The expansion also allows for the segregation and analysis of samples by activity level and reduces the potential of contamination in the main laboratory.

In September 2007, the radiochemistry laboratory was awarded a grant from the FDA titled “Food Safety and Security Monitoring Project”. In September 2008, the laboratory received a grant from EPA for “Demonstration of Enhancing Radiological Incident Response and Recovery”. The primary focus for both grants is to provide a reliable source of capability and capacity—to the FDA in the event of a food contamination incident and to the EPA in the event of an accidental or deliberate radiological incident.

The radiological team also maintains and staffs a mobile radiochemical laboratory capable of responding to nuclear emergencies within the state. All radiological team members are trained to perform on-site analyses in the mobile laboratory and are part

Mobile radiochemical laboratory

of the agency’s nuclear emergency response team. This team, which serves the state's two nuclear power plants, participates in emergency response exercises graded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The team provides timely analytical data to the accident assessment group to verify computer plum projections. The mobile laboratory’s Emergency Operation Plans include provisions for 24-hour operation, as required during nuclear emergencies.

by Scott Gillard 

Electron Microscopy

The first electron microscope was made as a prototype back in 1931. Today this technology has uses in histologic, cytologic, genetic, immunologic and virological research. The DSHS Laboratory uses Electron Microscopy (EM) to aid in identifying suspected viruses within samples submitted for viral testing. Martha Thompson, MPH, Viral Isolation Team Lead, makes note of the benefits of having EM by referring to the enhanced magnification and resolution“…of (EM) where identification in cell culture does not yield a conclusive result or where

Adenovirus viewed by EM
amplification of a suspect agent of bioterrorism is not recommended.”

Let’s back up a few steps to outline some basic principles of electron microscopy:

Simplified diagram of a TEM
  • Light microscopes are limited to the frequency of light illuminating the sample (~250nm). 1nm=10Å. This TEM is able to view objects at 2 angstroms (Å)
  • The TEM fires electrons thru a vacuum column with a thin sample of specimen. Structures can be identified by different electron projections.
  • The scope is located on the ground floor to maximize stability and minimize vibration as its viewing window is minute.
  • Read the operating manual

If a virus is observed, the microscopist can only discern the family to which it belongs. Further testing may then be performed to identify viral type or species.

Some of the virus families that have had their pictures taken by DSHS Laboratory virologists are posted on the Viral Isolation Electron Micrographs web page.

Viewing the Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) used by DSHS requires passage through a series of preparation areas to finally reach the room where virologists may spend many hours scanning a

Electron microscope


processed specimen looking for a suspected virus. This time spent scanning pays off in the hands of our capable microscopists. Their diligence and productivity underscores what it means to be a laboratorian for DSHS.

The first three statements on the operating manual for the Hitachi TEM H-7100, used by the Laboratory, are as follows:

Rule 1: Don’t touch a control if you are not sure of the outcome of that action

Rule 2: Never, ever force anything beyond finger strength

Rule 3: If in doubt ask for help

These statements remind operators and outsiders alike that EM must be performed by a laboratorian with dual experience in operating a TEM and in identifying the morphology of viruses. These rules also remind us that brute force can not give us the success of a well taught and finely tuned skill.

by Monty Gomez

Public Health Intern Analyzes H1N1 Laboratory Data

Public Health Intern analyzing H1N1 Laboratory data

During the spring semester of 2010, nine student interns participated in the Public Health Internship Program at the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). Student intern Kierste Miller worked on a project to analyze demographic and clinical data associated with influenza specimens tested by the Laboratory Services Section. Her project focused on information provided by submitters during the 2009 H1N1 Influenza A pandemic. In particular, she analyzed the correlation between clinician rapid flu tests and PCR tests performed in the DSHS Virology Laboratory.

Comparison between RIDT and Laboratory Influenza PCR Testing Results
Rapid Diagnostic Influenza Tests (RIDT) are simple and fast test kits designed to help clinicians initiate treatment. These kits exhibit specificity 90-95 percent of the time and have a low false positive rate; false negatives are found to occur 50-70 percent of the time. The results from these tests will indicate whether the specimen is either Flu+, Flu-, or is Flu + and identify the specimen as Type A or B; however, Flu + Type A sub-typing is not possible. The DSHS Laboratory uses Real Time Reverse Transcriptase PCR or rRT-PCR to test influenza specimens. These PCR results are highly sensitive, specific, and have sub-typing capabilities.

The purpose of Ms. Miller’s project was to analyze demographic and clinical data associated with influenza specimens tested by the DSHS Laboratory from January through August 2009. She then compared the PCR Results from Laboratory with Rapid Influenza Diagnostic Tests (RIDT) results from clinicians.

Out of 1,807 Rapid Influenza Diagnostic Tests:

  • 754 were both positive using RIDT and PCR
  • 630 were both negative using RIDT and PCR
  • 411 of the positive RIDTs specimens were negative when tested by PCR
  • 12 of the negative RIDTs specimens were positive when tested by PCR

With these numbers the specificity calculated for the RIDT was 60.5 percent (false positives) and the sensitivity was 98.4 percent (false negatives).
Overall, the DSHS Laboratory performed PCR testing on 8,563 specimens received from January through August 2009. Of those specimens, 27 percent, or 2,338 specimens, were positive and 92 percent of the positive specimens were sub-typed to be the 2009 H1N1 virus.

Challenges with her project, limited the scope of Ms. Miller's data. These challenges were incomplete submitter forms and the overwhelming amount of data compiled for one person to enter into the database. Despite this, she created an H1N1 database and worked diligently to enter all the information for the Emergency Preparedness Branch. This lead to recommendations that, in the future, submitter forms include the name of the school that students attend and the requirement for certain aspects of data to be completed on the form, and that there be immediate entry of the data into a database. If these changes were implemented, a better epidemiological picture could be made to show how a novel flu virus was spread and how it affected the population for future evaluation, studies, and changes in how we handle new outbreaks.

The Public Health Internship Program, sponsored by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), in partnership with The University of Texas at Austin School of Biological Sciences, helps to educate and train the next generation of public health professionals. Launched in September 2004, this program allows student interns to contribute to protecting the health of Texas citizens by helping to develop new laboratory methodologies and collecting and assessing information related to the incidence and epidemiology of infectious diseases. Student interns work on projects in both laboratory science and epidemiology. Areas of research have included bioterrorism preparedness, the link between tuberculosis and diabetes along the Texas-Mexico border, prevention of Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in Texas high school athletes, the development of new laboratory tests to screen Texas newborns for metabolic disorders, and environmental studies of Texas coastal waters.

by Laura Lane


To receive new issue notifications via email, please click on "Sign Up for E-mail Updates" logo on the main newsletter web page:

January 2011, Volume Two, Issue One
(Publication #E14-13156)
Published by DSHS Laboratory Services Section
PO Box 149347, MC 1947
Austin, TX 78714

512 458 7318
888 963 7111, ext 7318 Toll Free
email The Laboratorian


Susuan U. Neill, PhD
512 458 7318
email Susan

Jimi Ripley-Black
512 458 7318, ext 6505
email Jimi

Last updated April 6, 2011