Does a career in infectious disease typically progress through biosafety levels, or do people select one and specialize their training in procedures specific to those hazards?

That is, say Dr. Kliener wants to work on TB (BSL3). Does he first on have to work on MRSA (BSL2), which he has no interest in, just to build up experience? Or could he simply learn everything there is to know about TB and BSL3 lab procedure, don hairnet and gown, and get to work with someone who has experience under those conditions?

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    $\begingroup$ As far as I know, the higher biosafet levels (3 and 4) need a special training. For the BSL 2 labs I have worked in, you need a proper training (technician or any relevant study as biology, biochemistry and so on) so you know how to act and behave in the lab. And of course you need some introduction (rules and safety for the lab). $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Aug 9 '15 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ BSL 2 access requires a 1-2 day course, which is training generally offered by the institution. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 '15 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ I have found that BSL2 access tends to not be highly regulated. Some of the BSL2 labs I have worked in did not even require 1-2 days of training, while others did. In any case, the current policy at my current institution is that BSL3 access is denied to anyone who does not possess an undergraduate degree, and those with it must apply for and take a course. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Aug 9 '15 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ There is major jump in the risk to researchers between BSL-2 and BSL-3. BSL-2 laboratories are very common in part because potentially infectious viral vectors are commonly used in molecular biology. $\endgroup$ Aug 12 '15 at 14:48

My short answer would be no, careers of people who study pathogens requiring biosafety training are not focused biosafety level.

More broadly, the people I know who study infections diseases are not motivated by the biosafety levels of their infections organisms. Rather, they are motivated by biological questions and their research that often require higher biosafty for their labs.

For example, the researchers featured in a recent (July 2015) National Geographic do not study Ebola because they want to work on a BSL-4 level virus. Rather they want to about learn about the disease from both a basic science and applied human heath perspective.

Your hypothetical Dr. Kliener would not work his way up the biosafety chain as a conscious. Let's say a young Mr. Kliener always wanted to study human health. He probably would have started doing research in a BSL-2 facility as an undergrad research assistant (See BSL-2 requirements here. As a grad student, he might have worked at a BSL-3 lab if he choose a good program while spending years focusing on a specific pathogen or system. By the time he became because a PI, he would have needed to find a BSL-3 facility for his research. He worked his way up, but not because he wanted to study dangerous pathogens. Rather his research question guided his path.

Other career tracks could end up using a BSL-3 facility, but not necessarily need the stop at a BSL-2 facility. For example, a hypothetical Dr. Fish may have started off loving the outdoors. She studied limnology as an undergrad and grad student and did not step foot inside a lab. However, when she began working as biologists for a state conservation agency, a novel fish virus emerged. She now is tasked with studying it. Her agency trained her to work in a BSL-3 lab so she could culture fish with their virologists.


Here's a nice little walk-through by the CDC on Biosafety levels. Biosafety level reflects that potential risk microbes used (or potentially present in the case of human tissue samples) in the laboratory present to researchers. http://www.cdc.gov/training/QuickLearns/biosafety/

BSL-1 is for very low-risk organisms, like non-pathogenic E-coli. You can work with these guys on an open bench with minimal protection gear and be at little to no risk of disease.

BSL-2 is for low-risk organisms, like Staphylococcus, where risk of infection is low and/or infection is not likely cause serious consequences to researcher well-being. (Some dangerous blood-borne diseases can be worked with at BSL-2, because the additional pre-cautions do not impact transmission, which would only be likely to occur after a needle-stick or similar inoculation with infectious material).

BSL-3+ Labs are much less common, have much stricter requirements on facility structure and security and on researcher's protective equipment and procedures.

BSL-3 is for dangerous microbes that can be transmitted by aerosols, such as Tuberculosis.

BSL-4 facilities are rare, require expensive training and equipment and are used for deadly, exotic microbes, like Ebola.


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