Emerging Leader: Melissa Lash, East Bay Municipal Utility District

Emerging Leaders, Members in the News

Melissa Lash, Research Microbiologist, East Bay Municipal Utility District

Sometimes the worst brings out the best.

That’s the case with Melissa Lash, research microbiologist at the East Bay Municipal Utility District. She’s responsible for special projects, bringing new analyses online, developing QA-QC protocols, and investigating laboratory errors.

Those skills were well-suited to overcoming the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic—shortages of hand sanitizers and detecting the presence of the virus in the community’s wastewater.

“At the start of the pandemic, we couldn’t find enough hand sanitizers for our field people and meter readers to use,” she recalls.

At the same time, hand sanitizers were in short supply. So when the FDA allowed it, Lash developed an SOP and trained the lab staff on compounding their own sanitizer. “Sourcing the materials was probably the hardest part,” Lash recalls. “Finding the right grade of isopropyl alcohol was the most difficult. But once we did, we made about 100 gallons—enough for all of the employees of EBMUD.”

Soon after the pandemic hit, public health officials determined that wastewater could be tested to determine the levels of COVID-19 in a community. “Some agencies were sending samples to commercial labs,” Lash says. “But we determined we could do it in house.”

The challenge was developing a standard method for concentrating and extracting the RNA from the samples. “We determined which method had the greatest chance for success for our lab, tested our wastewater, and provided the results to our county health department.”

Lash has a master’s degree in micrology, with an emphasis on fungal biology. She started out working in commercial labs, focusing on molds. But when the lab started testing drinking water, she became ELAP certified and joined the staff at San Jose-Santa Clara.

In 2015, she began working at EBMUD and says she enjoys the wide diversity of projects.

“Right now, we’re in the process of validating and changing our LIMS software. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s good, we’re getting a lot done,” she says.

“I’m very pleased with what we’ve been able to achieve in such a short period of time. It’s been a great experience.”