Jayme (Ballantyne) Parker graduated from Shelby High School in 1993 and went on to attend college in Bozeman at Montana State University. After six years she had a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology, with an emphasis in Environmental Health. She found microbiology to be extremely interesting and took almost every microbiology course offered, graduating as an undergraduate with 184 credits!
“I think I over did it,” said Parker with a laugh. “I ended up taking nearly all of the microbiology courses offered at MSU, including medical technology courses.”
All of those courses, and then the completion of many more, including a Master of Science in Public Health through Walden University and a final PhD in Biological Sciences with an emphasis on clinical virology, graduating again in 2020, has proven invaluable as she now serves as the Chief of Alaska’s Public Health Lab. This position is not appointed, but instead is one Parker had to apply and beat out other applicants for. As one would imagine, the title of “chief” comes with many responsibilities.
“The Chief oversees the work of laboratorians at two facilities, the Alaska State Virology Laboratory in Fairbanks, which I was familiar, and the bigger Anchorage State Public Health Laboratory,” explained Parker.
“In Anchorage, the laboratory focuses on many other pathogens, not just viruses. I now manage a team of microbiologists, chemists and physicists that operate our clinical microbiology team to track things like antimicrobial resistant organisms and sexually transmitted diseases, a biological and chemical terrorism team to offer detection systems for select agents and compounds like nerve gases, and a radiological health program that monitors the functionality and safety of all of the x-ray and mammography equipment in Alaska,” she said.
“I’m continually shocked every day in this position and am again in a steep learning curve as I tackle sectors of public health that I typically never even thought about. There are also the frequent questions from the legislature as well as drop-ins from our governor,” shared Parker.
How does a girl from Montana end up as the Chief of Public Health in Alaska? It took a lot of time, effort and dedication and it all started when Parker’s love for road trips took her there.
Parker said the drive to Alaska was a transition period for her, that as she read John McPhee’s Coming to the Country, she began to realize the incredible richness and history of the Alaskan people and she wanted to be a part of that. Getting out of the “lower 48” sounded like a good idea and for a girl who isn’t afraid of winter, it was a good fit.
“I liked the frontiersmen attitude of the Alaskans and their hospitality in such an unhospitable place,” said Parker. “I wasn’t afraid of winter and I really wanted to get into dog mushing, and Fairbanks is the best place in the world for it.”
Microbiology and dog mushing don’t usually go hand-in-hand, but for Parker that was the case. She started out working at various labs in Fairbanks, starting with an environmental health laboratory. During her first five years in Alaska, she was promoted to microscopist and then the drinking and waste water microbiologist for the lab.
Global health is my passion,” said Parker. “At this point in my career I see Alaska as being an excellent training ground due to its vastness, complexities and public health challenges, some of which I have found in other parts of the world. COVID remains the bulk of my day. I serve the state as the Deputy Testing Lead and continue to listen to Alaskans and offer my support and experience.”
Her days are long and filled with working with people, speaking with the fisheries once a week, the mines, oil producers, and schools. She answers questions on Zoom calls where 300 people call in to ask questions. While many of the lab managers have opted to work remotely, Parker has come into the lab every day, wearing her mask and a positive attitude.
“I wear my mask even though I’m booster vaccinated to put people at ease and encourage their own mask usage,” said Parker. “I talk to my staff about their friends, families and how their mental health is holding up. Even though we are living in a highly technically advanced society, it is important to remember our human resources and their health and well-being. After all, our healthcare workers are coming in everyday to run the exact same test, find the same patients with the same ailments and count up the deaths.”
“Please listen to the healthcare providers in your local districts, not celebrities, politicians and other non-health related experts,” encourages Parker. “Do everything you can to be part of the solution. This includes getting fully vaccinated, wearing a mask, social distancing, good hand hygiene and ventilating indoor spaces. Love your neighbors as yourself, especially those you don’t know and accept that you may not understand their day-to-day challenges. Don’t judge people for wearing, or not wearing masks, accept it and get yourself armed with real information.”
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