Think of what it takes to maintain a seven-story, 185,000-square-foot building — lights, power, air. Now imagine that nearly half is laboratory space and, of that, more than 12,000 square feet is home to a biosafety level four laboratory, where scientists work with the world’s deadliest pathogens, and safe operations are critical.
Photo by Jenifer Reynolds, Galveston County Daily News
All of that is on Miguel Grimaldo’s mind when he walks into the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB. And as soon as he passes through the front door, he knows immediately, intuitively whether the facility is operating smoothly.
“It’s the experience of being in so many labs,” explained the GNL biological containment director. “You have to understand how the facility operates. These facilities are so complex. They are like a living organism,” said Grimaldo.
This year, the GNL hosted the third annual National and Regional Biocontainment Laboratories Network meeting, a most exclusive club. This year Grimaldo’s counterparts were invited to stay a little longer to share their experiences with the operational side of high- and maximum-containment laboratories.
Fifteen people eagerly accepted the offer and spent all day, and for many a second day, discussing all the intricacies of tending one of these remarkable facilities. Among the events were bull sessions on topics such as how to certify high-efficiency particulate air filter housing, decontamination methodologies and the need to train maintenance workers to think of the big picture and always keep safety in mind.
“Safety and maintenance are two different worlds, and this is where you put them together,” said Grimaldo. A maintenance worker who adjusts a room temperature that is too hot or too cold by simply shutting or opening a vent, for example, might inadvertently affect another part of the building.
If a water leak, air pressure problem or a spill is detected by a member of the maintenance team, “I tell them not to cowboy their way in,” he said. “Stop, call me and we’ll assess the risk and make a decision. You have to respect the living organism.”
Based on the emails that followed, the sessions after the meeting were well-received. As one participant noted, “the wealth of knowledge was outstanding.” Another common theme was appreciation of the generosity in sharing that expertise.
In some ways, the art of running this kind of laboratory is an apprenticeship. The biocontainment lab world is very small, and there is no “degree plan” for the knowledge needed to do the job.
However, UTMB has the next best thing in the Biocontainment Operations Fellowship program – a part of the National Biocontainment Training Center – developed to train people on the commissioning, operation, maintenance and ongoing validation of biosafety level two, three and four laboratories, often referred to as BSL-2, BSL-3 or BSL-4 labs.
The robust training facilities at UTMB include the Robert E. Shope, M.D. Laboratory, the first full-suit BSL-4 laboratory located on a U.S. academic campus, as well as the Galveston National Laboratory, one of two national biocontainment laboratories built with funding awarded by the National Institutes of Health in response to the federal government’s call to expand the nation’s infectious disease research infrastructure.
In the hands-on training, fellows work with engineers, scientists, facilities maintenance personnel, contractors and certified biosafety officers. Ideal candidates have a bachelor’s degree in life sciences or engineering. But what Grimaldo looks for most is integrity.
“I look for high moral values and the capacity of the individual,” he said. That integrity is critical working in these buildings. “Some don’t play well in this environment and they are no longer working in this environment.” He also looks for someone who continues to learn and train, something he considers essential in his work.
“I try to learn one new thing every day,” he said.
Photo by Jenifer Reynolds, Galveston County Daily News
Some of that knowledge comes from the scientists with whom he works. “The partnership between science and engineering in these laboratories is vital,” said Dr. Joan Nichols, associate director for research and operations at the GNL. “We are all working to advance human health – we just think about it from two sides of the same coin. As a scientist, I couldn’t do this research safely and successfully without people like Miguel and his team; they possess a unique skill set that comes from good mentoring and from years of experience.”
Born and raised in Panama in a rice-growing, ranching family, Grimaldo came to the United States for a dual degree in agricultural economics and agricultural engineering at Texas A&M University. While he loved ranching, he was also interested in engineering, so it was the perfect fit. After graduation, he returned to work on the family ranch.
However, within a couple of years, he joined the United States Department of Agriculture in Panama, working initially in agricultural economics research for the Foreign Agricultural Service. Then he moved to the Animal and Plant Inspection Service, which is where, quite by happenstance, he first entered the world where he now works.
As Grimaldo tells it, in 1992 American biocontainment expert Lee Thompson came to Panama to inspect a laboratory that was used to analyze samples for the presence of foot and mouth disease. Grimaldo, in between assignments, was asked to escort him. “I was his driver,” he chuckles. That week-long visit and Thompson’s mentoring would ultimately change Grimaldo’s life and bring him to Galveston.
The laboratory was subsequently closed and when Grimaldo was asked to reopen the laboratory a year later, he had to teach himself.
“I started reading manuals, reading USDA requirements for facilities,” he said. The lab was reopened with hand-me-downs from other government facilities and a yearly maintenance budget of $40,000. It was Grimaldo’s job to keep it operating safely.
“With that $40,000, we worked miracles,” he notes with a smile.
Grimaldo’s successful career with the USDA (he was honored as the Foreign Service National of the Year in 2004) and extensive knowledge of biocontainment laboratories earned him an invitation to UTMB just as the university began operating the Shope Laboratory and was in the early design phase for the Galveston National Laboratory.
While Grimaldo and his wife and children miss Panama and look forward to returning, he knew he couldn’t pass up the unique opportunity to shepherd the GNL from blueprints to the only such BSL-4 laboratory operating on a university campus in the United States.
He concedes that he initially wondered what role he would play in the GNL.
“I have discovered that my mission is to make sure that these labs are safe and to make sure that the scientists who work here can do their work and can find solutions to the world’s health problems,” he said. “My job is to make sure the community is safe and that I transfer the knowledge I have to those who need it.”
For more on the biocontainment operations fellowship program, email firstname.lastname@example.org