Vivian Smith specializes in biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories — the ones found scattered throughout Fort Detrick.
Smith won a National Institutes of Health fellowship at age 21 to study and implement biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratory protocols. She earned a master’s degree in biodefense from Johns Hopkins University.
And she worked with BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Integrated Research Facility, operated by Battelle. As an employee, she helped the IRF bring on a new BSL-4 lab.
Now, Smith works to help laboratories update their standards to fit the international ones for biosafety level 3 and 4 labs.
Only the labs she works with are in Vietnam.
Smith is part of a Battelle project in Vietnam helping the scientists there update their standards. She puts on trainings for laboratory officials and helps them implement new procedures.
She has been in Vietnam for almost two years. She started in August 2017.
“It’s been such an amazing experience to be welcomed into a country as a foreigner,” she said.
She had never been there before, she said, and did not speak the language. She uses an interpreter for her work.
“I didn’t even know how to say hello before I came here,” Smith said.
A typical workday for Smith involves meeting with laboratory heads under the Ministry of Health or animal labs. They discuss what needs to be tackled that week.
Smith said she focuses on one institution a week, with logistics determined on Monday and visits to remote or local labs the rest of the week. She will write up an assessment and then create a plan with her Battelle colleague to fill any gaps.
The scientists and researchers in the laboratories made her feel welcome, she said. They are curious about how they can do better and strive to improve. She finds her work rewarding because she helps prevent outbreaks from becoming global by updating lab standards.
“It’s been a really great two years,” Smith said.
Smith recently won the Dr. Billy Richardson Young NBC Researcher Award for her work in Vietnam.
Lela Harbo works as the program manager for Smith’s program. Smith’s experience and background were impressive, Harbo said.
Smith applied for another project, but she did not get it. When another one opened up for Kazakhstan, Harbo thought of Smith.
Smith is passionate about the work, Harbo said. Her excitement and commitment to the works leaves a lasting impression.
But it is also her kindness.
Harbo recently had baby girls. She planned a trip to Vietnam to see Smith’s program but worried about leaving her family.
Smith, who had at that point met Harbo only once, instead offered to house Harbo’s family and found baby sitters for the children, Harbo said.
Smith’s work in Vietnam is the second international project of which she has been a part. Her colleague Jason Mott had been there a year when Smith arrived in Kazakhstan to help with the biosafety laboratories.
When she arrived in the male-driven field while everyone was speaking Russian, she was tentative. But she worked to gain the confidence of the lab officials. She did not push American standards on them; she taught them how they were the best practices, Mott said.
And like the group in Vietnam, Mott said that the group in Kazakhstan was tight-knit. Smith would come over and play with his daughter.
“We all felt like family,” Mott said.
Mott knew Smith won an award. He was not surprised.