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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

May 2, 2008

Betsy Matos

Betsy Matos, seen here with "Max" in an Environmental Health and Safety non-research teaching facility, wears many hats as Iowa State's biosafety officer. One of her primary roles is to educate scientists about the importance of personal protective equipment. EH&S acquired Max as a prop to aid in hands-on training activities. Photo by Bob Elbert.

From bugs to biosafety

by Paula Van Brocklin

Two weeks after Betsy Matos became Iowa State's biosafety officer (September 2006), a folder containing sparse information on the university's plan for a possible pandemic flu emergency landed on her desk. Matos -- still learning her co-workers' names in Environmental Health and Safety -- was charged with coordinating the effort.

It was a tall task. Matos leaned on her innate abilities to meet deadlines and multitask. After all, it wasn't the first time she had faced challenges and prevailed.

Tenacious spirit

A native of Puerto Rico, Matos moved to Iowa in 1999 when her husband, William Arce, began working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Des Moines. She had just earned her undergraduate degree in agronomy from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, and knew she wanted to continue her education. With her typical tenacity, she researched universities and was impressed with Iowa State's entomology program. She earned a master's degree in entomology in 2001, followed by a Ph.D. in entomology and horticulture in 2005.

Just a year into her doctorate, Matos faced another challenge when her major professor left Iowa State.

"At the beginning, I was troubled with it because I was like, 'Oh, my God! I'm going to be alone in this world,' and it's a very competitive world," she said.

But Matos quickly learned to be self-reliant, a quality that served her well as an ISU student and now as a staff member.

"For a Ph.D., one of the things you want to achieve is to be an independent learner, an independent thinker," Matos said. "Having [my professor] gone taught me to manage a budget, ask for transportation to field sites, locate people to collaborate with me at field sites, be my own lab manager, hire my own student hourly employees, go to meetings with faculty ... I think that was awesome preparation."

So were cockroaches. Matos, an entomologist, loves bugs of all shapes and sizes (a passion she has passed on to her children, Dominick, 5, and Isabelle, 2). But she detests roaches. So when Joel Coats, professor of entomology, approached her during the summer of 2006 about a research opportunity with roaches, she hesitated.

"That was the worst insect ever," Matos said. "But if it's going to keep me in entomology, if it's going to keep me in science, I'm going to go ahead and do it."

Matos worked with roaches for three months, testing botanical pesticides. Her objective was to kill the cockroaches, but not the other "critters" that live in the organic areas of plants.

After working with roaches, coordinating a comprehensive emergency plan for Iowa State didn't seem so intimidating to Matos. But going from ISU student to staff member in a matter of months was a different story.

"I would think, 'Wow, I was a student just a year ago and today I'm sitting in this room with three vice presidents and the registrar,'" Matos said. "I thought, 'How did this ever happen?'"

Many hats

Matos laughs when she recalls that 75 percent of her first year as biosafety officer was spent on the pandemic flu emergency plan.

"It was just 'other duties as assigned,'" she said.

The bulk of Matos' work involves inspecting ISU's biological research labs, which handle biohazards such as E. coli and salmonella. She makes sure the researchers follow federal, state and local regulations.

"One of my jobs is to make sure that they are [working] safely, that they are not taking it home," Matos said. "I want those who come into the university to go home as healthy as when they came in. That's very important, that they don't take it to their kids, dogs, husbands or wives."

Matos also monitors whether ISU researchers are wearing proper personal protective equipment, like safety goggles and lab coats. Sometimes, Matos admits, the scientists are not pleased with her reminders, but she tries to convey a higher purpose.

"They may not be happy ... but I need to do that for their sake and for the university," she said. "That's the only way we exist. If we have unhealthy employees, then we have no one doing research, no one coming to classes. That would be really bad."

Convincing scientists to wear protective gear is Matos' greatest work challenge, she admits. As a scientist herself, she understands the hesitation. There is no scientific basis for the regulations she must enforce (it has not been proven, for example, that E. coli can infect someone who is not wearing eye protection). But she tells them to think about it another way.

"You never go in to work thinking, 'Today, I'm going to have an accident.' When you get in your car, you consciously choose to put on your seatbelt, hoping that if you get in a car accident, that seatbelt will help.

"It's the same thing with using personal protective equipment," Matos said.

In addition to being ISU's biosafety officer, Matos also serves as the university's "responsible official," a requirement of the Patriot Act. In that role, Matos is the liaison between Iowa State and federal agencies should biowarfare agents surface on campus.

Be prepared

When it comes to her work, Matos' mantra is "be prepared." Pandemic flu isn't in the news today like it was a year ago, but experts still predict a pandemic will occur, she said.

"At the end of the day, what matters is how we have prepared for it," Matos said. "If we have prepared for the worst-case scenario, like a pandemic, then we can change [the plan] to fit whatever the incident is."

Matos encourages employees to be prepared as well, reviewing their department's emergency plan online (go to AccessPlus, click on uBusiness and select "Emergency Plan").

"They should know that their unit has a plan, that their unit is prepared for it," Matos said. "They should start talking about it, figuring out what's important to them."

What's next?

Now that Iowa State's emergency plan is drafted, Matos and other university decision-makers plan to comb through each department's proposal, estimating the number of people and amount of funding it would take to implement the plan.

Will it ever be complete?

"It will continue to be a draft until we use it," Matos said. "It's a dynamic, changing process."


"At the end of the day, what matters is how we have prepared for it. If we have prepared for the worst-case scenario, like a pandemic, then we can change [the plan] to fit whatever the incident is."

Betsy Matos