New State Lab head takes charge

June 8, 2007
By

John Ruch

Sued ex-bosses as whistleblower

FOREST HILLS—Dr. Mary Gilchrist, the new director of the State Laboratory Institute, is known as a strong advocate of rapid response to disease outbreaks and a popular lecturer on the history of epidemics.

She got the job after filing a whistleblower lawsuit against her former employers at Iowa’s version of the State Lab, the University Hygienic Institute, in a dramatic case that involved Gilchrist secretly tape-recording her own firing by the University of Iowa’s acting president.

“The general consensus is Iowa’s loss is Massachusetts’ gain,” said a recent editorial in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, praising Gilchrist’s leadership on flu testing and bioterrorism protection.

In a Gazette phone interview, Gilchrist praised the State Lab as “an esteemed institution with a long history of delivering great public health services.” While her still-pending lawsuit asks for reinstatement, she said, “I’m committed to Massachusetts” and would remain here even if she wins.

The State Lab is a state facility at 305 South St. that conducts disease surveillance and testing and produces and distributes vaccines.

Gilchrist, who officially starts work June 11, said she and her husband wanted to find a house in Jamaica Plain but didn’t have time on a recent brief visit. She said she was attracted to the Centre Street restaurant district.

Leadership

Gilchrist is a microbiologist who has also worked at the University of Cincinnati, the Minnesota Department of Public Health and Cincinnati’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

She said it’s too early to say exactly what she may change at the State Lab, a process that will involve talking to the senior scientists.

But her focus is always on rapid response to apparent disease outbreaks. That includes thinking ahead about possible threats on the horizon.

For example, “A mumps epidemic is brewing in Canada,” Gilchrist said. The antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis that was recently in the national news is another possibility.

“You can’t ever sit back and say you’re done,” she said. “It’s a changing landscape.”

There is also the constant management of familiar diseases.

“The Massachusetts laboratory really has an excellent program for dealing with mosquito-borne disease,” Gilchrist said. “You won’t find a better program in the nation. But something can always be tweaked a little.”

Public education is also important, Gilchrist said—“not overplaying or underplaying risk.”

“If we quickly learn what’s going on [during an apparent outbreak] with the science that we have…[and] if we rigorously follow that science, we’re going to be a lot better off,” she said. “We’re at risk of being swept up with rumors and bloggers and things like that.”

The challenge, Gilchrist said, is for “the public health community and the laboratory community in specific to learn to speak human-speak and talk to the public in language they understand.”

To that end, Gilchrist gives a public presentation, illustrated with woodcuts and photographs, on the history of pandemic diseases from medieval plagues to today. She said it is about not only science, but also the “psychological resilience” to the horrors of disease that people used to have and may need again today.

“I show pictures of my ancestors and talk about how many of their children died of infectious disease,” she said. “We’re really well off, but we still need to recognize that we need to have resilience and science on our side.”

“That’s the kind of thing I really like to do,” Gilchrist said of the presentation, which she started giving after the 2001 anthrax terrorism. But for now, she said, “I’ll be working harder on the science.”

Lawsuit

For more than a decade, Gilchrist was director of the University Hygienic Lab. It serves the same function as state labs elsewhere, but is the only one not directly operated by the state. Instead, it falls within the University of Iowa system.

The university’s acting president, Gary Fethke, controversially fired Gilchrist last fall over a dispute about the size of a new lab facility scheduled to begin construction late this year.

Gilchrist had long advocated replacing the current 90-year-old lab with a new facility, and planned it in detail with senior scientists. The university then reportedly cut the size of the planned lab significantly.

Gilchrist claimed the size cut endangers public health by reducing the lab’s ability to handle a sudden increase in work in the event of a major disease outbreak. The lab’s new interim director has disagreed with that claim.

Gilchrist began complaining directly to state officials and seeking increased funding for a larger lab and a rapid-response testing program for diseases and suspicious substances. She alleges that the university’s vice president of research repeatedly attempted to bar her from making any complaints to officials or the university’s board of regents.

Called to a meeting with Fethke last October, Gilchrist suspected she would be fired and secretly carried a tape recorder.

According to the lawsuit, the tape captured Fethke accusing Gilchrist of creating a “sense of hysteria” and telling her, “You stuck your neck out for what you believed—and we just can’t, we can’t live with it.”

The tape also reportedly features another university official offering to disguise the firing as a “resignation” with a generous financial package in exchange for Gilchrist agreeing to remain silent about the situation.

Instead, Gilchrist filed the wrongful termination lawsuit as a whistleblower, claiming she was fired for attempting to reveal “mismanagement and substantial and specific dangers to public health and safety.” The suit, filed against Fethke and the vice president, asks for reinstatement, back pay and damages.

A judge has since ruled that Gilchrist doesn’t meet the legal definition of a whistleblower, but allowed the suit to continue.

According to the Daily Iowan, the controversy has led to a proposal in the state legislature for the lab to be completely state-run.

“I thought it was a very big mistake,” Gilchrist told the Gazette about the reduced lab size. “It was serious enough for me to complain and try to make a change rather than try to be safe in my job. I made the right decision.”

She said she also hoped to see more state control of the lab. “I think the state of Massachusetts has a better [lab] system,” she said.

But she suggested she has lost enthusiasm for the suit now that she has a new job and the Iowa lab facility plan is essentially a done deal.

“This is now,” she said. “The suit has a life of its own. I’m moving on.”

With lab size being the issue in Iowa, does Gilchrist see any need to expand the State Lab?

“I would say that it’s likely that there will be enough space in the near future,” said Gilchrist, adding that internal reconfiguration is more likely. “The building has, as any large building has, some shortcomings,” she said, noting that she has yet to hear from senior scientists about their needs.

The lawsuit clearly didn’t hurt Gilchrist’s job opportunities elsewhere. Gilchrist said she didn’t seek the State Lab job. Instead, she said, she was actively recruited by interim director Alfred DeMaria. She noted that she knows several State Lab staff members and scientists from various conferences and scientific programs.

“I’m not going to comment on the lawsuit,” said Donna Rheaume, spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health, which oversees the State Lab. “We’re quite confident that Mary Gilchrist is one of the best experts on laboratory science in the country.”

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