Looking back on his days at Illinois State, environmental health and safety alum John Bivona ’94 never imagined he would end up in his current role.

Bivona is the senior biosafety officer and alternate responsible official at the University of Chicago’s Howard Taylor Ricketts Laboratory (HTRL), a High Containment-Biosafety Level 3 facility, which carries out research on biodefense agents and emerging infectious diseases. Research conducted in the lab works toward developing therapeutics and new vaccines for various diseases like anthrax, plague, brucellosis, and SARS-COV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19.

Bivona oversees aspects of biosafety, biosecurity, and incident response. His detailed knowledge of infectious diseases combined with safe research practices has helped with the work that he has done in the HTRL during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bivona said that companies and universities have benefitted from a plethora of research funding during COVID-19. His lab conducts work that other facilities aren’t equipped to handle. The HTRL works with other universities, researchers, and companies to test drugs and see how well they do against COVID-19 and is in the early stages of testing both existing and new vaccines.

Another aspect of his role includes training researchers, staff, and individuals in outside organizations on the proper and safe use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Outside of University Medical Center’s with bigger budgets, there are many rural hospitals and clinics with staff that have never dealt with an emerging infectious disease,” Bivona said. “So, we work with them on learning how to use PPE effectively and safely. There is so much detail and so much practice that must be done when you’re working in a hospital providing clinical care for a respiratory disease at a pandemic level. I’ve had the opportunity to go to different hospitals and train clinical care workers on how to properly put on and take off PPE.”

He said that the training aspect of the job is one of the most rewarding components.

“Being able to equip somebody with valuable information that they can use is probably one of the most rewarding times in my professional life,” Bivona said. “You can help people flip a switch and become enlightened, that’s what I like about training.”

While training can be rewarding, working in a role like Bivona’s can be challenging during the time of a pandemic.

“It’s difficult to watch the public lose faith and confidence in public health agencies, like the CDC or state health agencies,” he said. “I’ve seen researchers and government officials speak out too quickly, sometimes with wrong or incomplete information. When you are dealing with a novel virus like SARS-CoV-2, it takes time to find out how the virus works, how it transmits, how infectious it is.”

Bivona mentioned that the rewarding aspects of the role and the importance of biosafety and infectious disease research outweigh challenges like this, however.

“I think that biosafety and infectious disease research is at the forefront of everyone’s mind and is on everyone’s radar right now,” he said. “For students who think they might be interested in this career path, just be willing to try things out. I have had a lot of high school and college kids come and take tours and check out what I do. Just don’t be afraid to try something out.”

Want to learn more?

Think a major in Environmental Health and Safety might be for you? Check out the department’s website for more information.

Bivona also noted that under normal circumstances, interested individuals can contact him or the University of Chicago for tours of the facility. While this opportunity is not currently available during the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be a future option for those who want to learn more.