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Lisa Fernando, High Containment Laboratory Manager

Lisa putting on a Level 4 suit and preparing to enter the high containment lab
Lisa putting on a Level 4 suit and preparing to enter the high containment lab

Lisa Fernando works at the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Lisa has a Bachelor of Science degree (Hons) in Biology from the University of Winnipeg, and a Master's of Science in Medical Microbiology from the University of Manitoba.

Meet the first woman to ever manage the Public Health Agency of Canada's Level 4 lab that houses some of the deadliest diseases in the world. Dynamic, impactful, and complex are just some ways to describe Lisa's responsibilities while managing the high containment lab at the NML. Most days begin with tackling questions from staff related to Level 4 procedures, training and scheduling. Then, she enters the active lab with trainees to provide one-on-one training. According to Lisa, the most difficult part of the job is balancing increasing research needs with space and staffing constraints.

Lisa's job as a high containment laboratory manager is very unique. It involves a lot of collaboration with many different groups to ensure the lab is functioning safely.

She is also in charge of running the international Level 4 training program. "Level 4 labs are being built all over the world, but many of the staff are not trained to work in these high level labs," Lisa explains. "Because the NML is an active high-containment lab we can answer this unique need for training."

When she was offered the job in 2013, Lisa was hesitant to accept. After 10 years of working on the VSV-Ebola vaccine project, managing the lab was a whole different ball game.

Lisa working with samples in the biosafety cabinet
Lisa working with samples in the biosafety cabinet

So, what convinced her when she was offered the position? Well, her boss said that if she didn't enjoy it after three months she could return to research. Five years later she's still at it and really enjoys her work. She says it suits her because she's a strong communicator, has clear expectations, and loves bringing people together to improve systems.

Despite there being only half a dozen women working in high containment at the NML, Lisa has prioritized making the Level 4 lab more accessible to women. Simple changes in the lab layout like lowering the breathing air drops and modifying the suit room for women have been appreciated.

Lisa strongly believes that her success has been a result of the many opportunities given to her by mentors along the way. Lisa pursued a career in the Level 4 lab because during her Master's research she was surrounded by a team who did high containment work. Mentors encouraged her to go beyond her comfort zone and gave her opportunities they knew she would excel at, even when she didn't see it. Now, she does the same for women in her program that may need encouragement and support. She wants women pursuing STEM to realize how safe and fulfilling a career in high containment work can be.

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