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What it’s like to work for a state health department

An interview with toxicologist Alejandra Maldonado, a Utah epidemiology manager
Martina G. Efeyini
Nov. 5, 2021

For this week’s column, I interviewed Alejandra Maldonado, an epidemiology manager and toxicologist at the Utah Department of Health to learn about her career journey.

Maldonado grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho, a place known for its potatoes. (Known as the potato capital of the world, it even has a museum dedicated to them.)

Like many children, Maldonado liked animals, so early on she wanted to become a veterinarian. After graduating from high school, she attended Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and majored in biology. It had a good STEM program, she said, and helped her learn more about different science careers.

“My parents are both immigrants from Mexico. I don't come from a traditional background — where a lot of Ph.Ds. have parents who were also in STEM,” she said.

Alejandra Maldonado earned a Ph.D. in wildlife ecotoxicology from Texas A&M. Her first state job was at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Today she works for the Utah Department of Health.

From biology to environmental science

While at Carroll College, she learned about research being done by Tyrone Hayes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The Hayes lab was studying the effects of atrazine, a common herbicide, and how it affects frogs’ endocrine systems. Inspired by his work, she decided to switch her major from biology to environmental science and do research.

“My professors were very supportive. I told them I wanted to do an independent (senior) project, and they helped me set it up. I did a small series of exposing frogs to 2, 4-D,” a different weed killer, she said.

During her last year in college, she also did an internship with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in the monitoring section. She was then hired by the department as a full-time environmental field technician. Maldonado worked there for two years. 

After graduating with a bachelor’s in environmental science (with minors in biology and chemistry), in 2009 she joined Miguel Mora’s lab at Texas A&M University, which focuses on how pollutants, pesticides, metals and other contaminants affect birds. Her dissertation focused on persistent organic pollutants in migratory songbirds. 

“I got to do field work collecting birds from Mexico, Costa Rica and Texas to see if there were differences in contaminant levels throughout their migratory cycle,” she said.

She earned her Ph.D. in wildlife ecotoxicology in 2018.

Exploring nonacademic careers

Graduate school left Maldonado burned out, she said, which affected her physically and mentally. Initially she explored avian ecotoxicology and found it was still predominately white and male, and she didn't want to get stuck on the "postdoc treadmill." So she decided it was time to consider career options outside of academia.

“I could always go back if I wanted to, and I just wanted something where I could just work and have my hours,” she said.

She applied to federal, state and industry positions, and a friend connected her with a fellow Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) member who knew her adviser and worked in Utah.

Maldonado talked to this new contact to learn more about a position that was available at the Utah Department of Health, applied for it and got it.

A day in the life

As a state toxicologist, Maldonado works on a variety of environmental health topics, such as emerging contaminants of concern, fish and game consumption advisories, children's environmental health, and air- and water-quality issues. Throughout her day, she said, she reads scientific papers, textbooks and literature reviews for her different projects. She also serves on various boards and committees and meets with stakeholders regarding environmental public health issues in Utah.

Maldonado also serves as epidemiology manager for the state’s APPLETREE Program, which evaluates and responds to environmental public health issues. According to the program website, “These duties include public health assessments, health consultations, exposure investigations, health education and community involvement.”

For APPLETREE, Maldonado leads a team that assesses the public health risks posed by environmental hazards throughout Utah, such as Superfund sites and other contaminants.

Coming from a wildlife toxicology background, Maldonado said, she did not expect to one day be working in public health. But making the move from academia has given her a better work–life balance. She noted that she now can work remotely, including on days when the air quality is poor.

Advice for job seekers

For those of you considering careers at state public health agencies or related departments, here are her tips:

  • Talk to someone who works for the agency/department: Ask them about their educational history and career path. When she did this, she learned about the opening for the job she now holds.

  • Research different departments: Read the current research and learn about the department’s focus areas. Explore areas outside of your comfort zone because you never know where it may take you. States are looking for scientists with a variety of skillsets.

  • Believe in yourself: “Find parallels between the job duties and your educational background, and be confident in your answers,” she said. “I think especially a lot of women tend to downplay their qualifications and experience when applying. So be bold.”

  • Focus on about your transferable skills: Look at all the experiences you have gained, especially experience that includes translating complex information and problem solving. Even though Maldonado does not work in a lab anymore, she said, the knowledge she gained helps her daily: “I look at data and I have an understanding of how it’s collected, why it's important, and how it interacts with the intersection of environment and public health.”

  • Learn how to communicate science to the public: A big part of Maldonado’s job is translating complex science for the public. Sometimes she gives presentations for stakeholders and partners. For example, she had to explain to the public the health risks associated with a recent cyanobacteria bloom and with vaping. “(Communicating) is something scientists need help with. The average person cannot read our science papers. This is a problem,” she said. She recommends checking out the Clear Writing Hub for tips on translating your science to plain language. (The hub is housed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and was developed by the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.)

The application process

Maldonado she shared with me what to expect when applying for state jobs.

  • Supplemental questions and ranking: The hiring manager adds supplemental questions with the job posting on the state website. Each applicant is numerically ranked based on years of experience. “I counted my years of graduate work as part of that experience, and I don't think all people do,” she said.

  • Self-evaluation: Provide detailed examples. When she applied for her current job, she talked about organizing presentations, her research, teaching, and leadership experiences. This helped her stand out, she said.

  • Reviewing: The department takes the top percentage of applicants and reviews them. Those applicants are reviewed by the hiring manager for subject matter expertise.

  • Interviewing: The applicants who make it through the review round move forward to the panel interview stage. The state also does a pay equity check, based on the location, education and years of experience. “My boss (later) informed me that some of the previous candidates’ rankings and some people on paper looked better than myself … I managed to beat them out by being really prepared for the interview,” she said..

Martina G. Efeyini

Martina G. Efeyini is a toxicologist, science communicator and advocate for the next generation of scientists. She works at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, CURE Scholars Program and is a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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