Making sense of a changing world through science

Corrie Ntiforo– Environmental Health Safety (EHS) Consultant, University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) – Galveston, TX

Article | 20 July 2021
Corrie Ntiforo instructs her colleague on how to prepare the positive pressure protective suit that helps isolate dangerous biological agents present in the BSL-4 lab: the highest biosafety level. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I love what I do. I love this job because I never ever have same day twice!” Corrie Ntiforo jubilantly exclaims.

For 17 years, Corrie has been working in biological safety as an Environment Health Safety (EHS) Consultant at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, Texas.

“I’m primarily responsible for the administration of our federal select agent program, as well as one of the Biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) trainers. Biosafety level 4 is the highest level of containment, and there are four levels, BSL 1 through 4,” Corrie explains.

A BSL refers to a set of biocontainment precautions that are mandatory in order to be able to separate extremely dangerous biological agents in a confined laboratory facility. These agents can cause serious harm to one’s health in the form of allergic reactions, serious injuries and even death.

In order to succeed in her role, Corrie believes a combination of a strong educational background in science, an understanding of customers, and good communication skills are essential.

In addition to a deep knowledge of science, Corrie feels that good communication and collaboration skills are essential for success in this highly specialized work. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I think it's really important for people who are in charge of compliance and safety to be able to understand your customers and what they do: the processes,” she says. “I am a microbiologist by training, and I have a Master of Science in public health and parasitology. So to me that’s very important,” Ntiforo stresses.

She underscores that “you can teach safety and compliance, but you don't have the time for on-the-job-training to teach individual viruses and bacteriology and immunology and transmission. That has to be innate in our job.”

“I also consider myself a people person. I really love interacting with every different group from maintenance people who are fixing doors and fixing our autoclaves, all the way up to the VP of Research. I feel that one of my gifts is communication,” Corrie shares.

She cites both communication and a collaborative work culture as integral components in the efficacy of the work she and her teammates perform. “It’s essential,” she emphasizes.

“How can we make this place safe if we are not communicating and working together? We each have a piece of the puzzle, and everything has to be working at the same time. If one of those is not functioning, we potentially have a safety issue, or a building issue, or it could be a multitude of things. So we have to work together,” Corrie states.

Corrie’s work training students for careers in biosafety labs and facilities is very rewarding. The staff at UTMB are highly rated internationally for biosafety training and containment. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
From listening to Corrie speak about the work she does, it is easy to see that she not only loves her job but is very proud of the team she works with even after they move on.

“I like when our people leave and go to another job and they come back and say, ‘If I wasn't here and didn't have your training or work with you so closely, I wouldn't be able to do my job so well right now,’ ” she says beaming with pride.

Knowing that the training and skills that she has been able to provide those who work with her in the lab will benefit them once they move on is very rewarding for Corrie and for the UTMB institution as a whole.

“From a biosafety and containment perspective, in the United States we really are looked to, to be one of the leaders and so for me it feels great,” she states. As a training entity, the UTMB facility is known as the go-to people internationally for biosafety training and containment.

Corrie, a mother of two small children, is in a highly critical and specialized role. She knows that “coming into work, even after an hour or two of sleep, smiling and doing what you’re supposed to do, and you keep everything functioning.” While she thinks money is important to keep current with the bills, Ntiforo believes it doesn’t mean much unless you are fortunate to do something that you love.

Her advice to students looking to get into her field or science in general, is on that science is imperative in solving problems.

“Without science we don’t have any way of solving something with facts,” she highlights. “Unfortunately, our society is moving in the direction, of changing things based on feelings, but we need justification, and we should have justification for changing things in the world. Without science you can’t do that,” she further emphasizes.

As she assists one of her colleagues put on her positive pressure suit, informally referred to as a “space suit” or “moon suit” Corrie chuckles and says, “a good day at work here is not being at your desk.”