Meet the Scientist: Dr. Suzanne (Suzy) Kalb

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Dr. Suzanne Kalb (Photo courtesy of Dr. Kalb)
Dr. Suzanne Kalb (Photo courtesy of Dr. Kalb)

Meet Research Chemist Dr. Suzanne (Suzy) Kalb, who works in CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, Division of Laboratory Sciences, Clinical Chemistry Branch.

The downside of organic chemistry for most students was the interesting upside for Dr. Kalb. Organic chemistry is a tough pre-requisite course for medical school. “It’s less memorization, and it’s more about thinking through and understanding how the chemicals are coming together and how electrons are moving, putting different rules together and figuring out how they interact.” She wanted to understand “what comes next.”

Path to Public Health

Born and reared near New Orleans, in Mandeville, a city in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, Suzanne is a southerner. Mandeville is located on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Her mother was a teacher and Suzanne’s guidance counselor in high school. Her father was a civil engineer who always told his children to do the best you can with what you’ve been given. Suzanne grew up learning about levies, infrastructures, and hurricanes. That experience, she believes, may very well have been that first spark to ignite a lifelong passion to want to know how things work, how they are connected, and “what comes next.”

Suzanne received a bachelor’s in chemistry from Tulane University in New Orleans, a master’s in analytical chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a PhD in pharmacology at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where she met and married her husband Bob. It was a dislike for snow (as in having to shovel it) that inspired Suzanne to talk her husband into relocating south, where she accepted a chemistry fellowship in 2003 in the very division in which she still works.

Her parents wanted her to attend medical school, and while Suzanne did envision a career in psychiatry, she wanted the challenge of new discoveries, the “what happens next” that a career as a research chemist has afforded her.

What’s Most Rewarding?

“I enjoy the research, exploration, and interacting with collaborators” she said as she spoke about recent projects. One such project involves many labs, such as the New York State Health Department, gaining a better understanding of botulinum neurotoxins. Botulinum toxins (BTX) are substances that are poisonous or destructive to nerve tissue and produced by rod-shaped bacteria known as Clostridium botulinum, and related species. They are also produced commercially for medical, cosmetic, and research use. Neurotoxins can be found naturally in a number of organisms, including some strains of blue-green algae that wash up on shore in a green scum.

Another recent project involved Suzanne’s collaboration with fellow researchers on another CDC campus, working on adapting an assay or investigative (analytic) procedure on botulinum neurotoxin human exposure for state public health labs to follow. The end result was much better than what she had anticipated. The Laboratory Response Network at CDC will distribute the completed assay to State labs across the country.

Her overarching goal is to develop methods to tell if people have been exposed to protein toxins.

Suzanne works in a biosafety level 2 lab. There are four biosafety levels, or BSL’s. Each level has specific controls for containment of microbes, or microscopic organisms, and biological agents. The primary risks that determine the different levels of containment are the possibility of infection/contamination, the severity of the disease, how capable it is of being transmitted, and the nature of the work conducted. If you work in a biosafety level (BSL) 2 lab, the microbes or microscopic organisms there pose moderate hazards to laboratorians and the environment.

Dr. Kalb and her children (photo courtesy of Dr. Kalb)
Dr. Kalb and her children (photo courtesy of Dr. Kalb)

Activities Enjoyed Outside Work

“Singing in my church choir is very time consuming, but rewarding, and I get a lot out of it.” And the obvious light of her life are her two children Daniel, age 7, and Catherine, age 4. She sees an aspiring scientist or engineer in Daniel, with whom she watched YouTube videos about hurricane Katrina recently. The home of Suzanne’s parents had sustained considerable damage during Katrina, and as she showed Daniel a photo of her parents’ home just after the storm, she watched as he made a connection between the ferocity of that storm as captured on the videos, and what it had done to the familiar home of his grandparents.

Suzanne also works with Senior and Associate Service Fellows who, like her son, are the next generations to rise to the challenges of new discoveries and exploration, and to wonder and ultimately realize “what happens next.”

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Page last reviewed: September 2, 2015
Page last updated: September 2, 2015