Profile: Alex Marchand-Austin


12 Jan 2018

Have you ever required laboratory data for a research paper or report? It seems simple enough to generate this information, but it actually requires a lot of coordination and expertise.

Let’s go behind the scenes with Alex Marchand-Austin, manager of lab surveillance and data management at Public Health Ontario, and see how it all works.

PHO in Action - Alex Marchand-Austin

Alex Marchand-Austin talks about lab surveillance and data management at Public Health Ontario's laboratory.

Duration: 2 min

How does one become a manager of lab surveillance and data management?

Not many children dream of becoming something as specific as a lab manager in surveillance and data management – so how did Alex get here? Alex has a Bachelor’s of Science  in cell and molecular biology, and started his career working at the Public Health Agency of Canada as a liaison officer with PHO not long after graduation. It was in this position that Alex first worked closely with PHO lab data and was later recruited to lead the new lab surveillance and data management department. This wasn’t, however, the end of his educational path.

It’s Alex’s job to manage a team that helps process data requests from the wealth of data available from Public Health Ontario’s laboratory. As an intermediary between those who make requests (anyone from Public Health Units to researchers and academics) and the laboratory, Alex has to work with his team to interpret and tailor highly technical data to support each request.

This work helps make data that is already valuable from a clinical perspective even more valuable by extending its use for public health initiatives. It’s the best of both worlds: when people are already sick, lab test results help them understand how and start them on the road to treatment. Going forward, those results can be looked at from a population perspective to develop public health interventions that prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

The importance of teamwork

People might not know how much knowledge and expertise goes into generating the data that Alex’s team works with:

“Although lab tests may seem to be a simple “answer” to a diagnostic question, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to generate it. Designing and validating tests, skilled lab techniques, complex interpretation of multiple results,patient factors, quality control, lab computer system design and maintenance, to name just a few. All of these factors can influence data quality and need to be considered to various degrees when building a data set for another purpose like surveillance or research.”

All of this wouldn’t be possible without Alex’s team and colleagues, a particular point of pride for him:

“The amazing people at the lab put a lot of work into generating great results and are your greatest resource. We have come together from a variety of backgrounds to form a super knowledgeable, fun, and helpful group. Their enthusiasm for learning and problem solving makes me immensely proud to have them as colleagues.”

During his time at PHO, Alex pursued his Master’s of Science, using his thesis to focus on whole genome sequencing of Bordetella pertussis, the bacteria that causes whooping cough. He looked at how that technology could be used to describe changes in the bacteria over time and how monitoring those changes might be important to public health organizations. The topics explored in those studies are becoming increasingly relevant to his job, since data from whole genome sequencing is increasingly being used to enhance public health surveillance and research initiatives.

HIV datamart

A major project that Alex has worked on is the HIV data mart. This is a repository that provides timely, robust HIV data, contributing to:

  • surveillance
  • epidemiology
  • clinical care
  • research
  • priority-setting
  • planning and evaluation

At local (e.g. clinic, public health unit), regional (e.g. LHIN) or provincial levels.

The HIV laboratory data mart can help PHO support the delivery of better clinical and public health services in Ontario, by providing a better understanding of how many people are affected by HIV in Ontario.

The data mart helps automate a laborious data cleaning and transformation process that used to be performed manually. This frees up the time for epidemiologists and analysts to work with high quality data for analysis and reporting instead of spending the majority of their time cleaning and formatting. This has already allowed PHO to report on Ontario’s progress in achieving the 90-90-90 goals set forth by the WHO for the reduction of HIV – and would have been near impossible without the data mart.

Ultimately, Alex is glad to be a part of the work that happens at PHO:

“PHO brings together experts from a variety of fields to tackle public health issues from all angles. We have laboratory experts, epidemiologists, analysts, scientists, physicians, nurses, and all the supporting staff under one organizational umbrella to support our various partner’s public health needs. This critical mass of expertise helps anchor a sometimes seemingly fractured public health system. “

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Updated 12 Jan 2018