What’s your job? Biosafety cabinet replacement with Tony McGrath

What’s your job? is a series focused on the work of FP&M employees. As the largest and most diverse nonacademic unit on campus, it can be challenging to learn everything our division is responsible for. These stories shine a light on FP&Mers and what they do to keep campus safe, sustainable and successful.

Tony McGrath
Tony McGrath, Biosafety Cabinet Program Manager for the FP&M Environment Health & Safety (EH&S) department, sits in his office. Photo by Veronika Dethart.

Tony McGrath, Biosafety Cabinet Program Manager for the FP&M Environment Health & Safety (EH&S) department, oversees the operations for one of UW-Madison’s beneficial and self-sustaining initiatives, and one he helped establish. Now in its eighth year, the biosafety cabinet (BSC) replacement program is incredibly successful, but getting it off the ground took a great deal of time and effort.

Tony’s relationship with the university began as a partner, working with the Baker Company, a manufacturer of biological safety cabinets, for 30 years.

“The university was Baker’s number-one customer, and so I would come to the university every year to visit,” he said.

Over the years, Tony developed a strong relationship with his UW-Madison partners, and in 2018, the right job opened at the right time for him to make the move. Tasked with managing the replacement of biosafety cabinets – vital enclosed workspaces for handling hazardous materials – Tony and his team ensure the seamless continuation of research activities across campus. His extensive background in business management, coupled with decades of experience with biological safety cabinets, positioned him as the perfect fit for UW-Madison.

“It was an opportunity for me to build upon my success at Baker and my career,” Tony said. “I had felt that I had reached my growth opportunities at Baker and knew I could contribute at UW. I knew I had challenges to overcome in the BSC Program, and that’s what excited me to take the job. I was motivated by those challenges.”

Tony McGrath
Tony McGrath, Biosafety Cabinet Program Manager for the FP&M Environment Health & Safety (EH&S) department, sits near a biosafety cabinet. Photo by Veronika Dethart.

When Tony came aboard, he quickly found himself not the head of one team but two: the recently created BSC replacement program, and what is now known as the Biocontainment Lab Services program. The latter team serves as the facility side of the operations, working with building exhaust controls and decontamination.

Tony immediately streamlined operations by combining the two teams into one, folding the Biocontainment Lab Services team into the BSC replacement program operation. Next, he began to build the BSC replacement program, fleshing out a process that began before he joined the organization, in 2016.

A biosafety cabinet is an enclosed, ventilated workspace used to protect personnel working with hazardous or infectious materials. Like any human-made product, however, their efficiency wears down over time, causing the need to eventually replace them. That’s where Tony and the BSC replacement program step in. Tony and his team evaluate and help replace the hundreds of cabinets currently in use across campus, enabling university labs to safely continue conducting valuable research work.

“The energy savings alone is a big benefit to the university along with the newer safety features, better ergonomics, slanted front for easier and more viewing to the work area, and sensors for extra safety,” Tony said. “The program has helped with faculty recruitment when there is new equipment for them to work with. I have heard from a lot of campus staff that without this program, they would not have been able to replace older BSCs and would have continued to utilize the older, inefficient equipment.”

Tony McGrath
Tony McGrath, Biosafety Cabinet Program Manager for the FP&M Environment Health & Safety (EH&S) department, stands near a biosafety cabinet. Photo by Veronika Dethart.

EH&S first bought 100 biosafety cabinets to relaunch the program. As of 2023, Tony estimated his team has replaced around 350 cabinets since he took over the program, with 35 cabinets replaced this year alone.  Tony doesn’t take all the credit, however. After all, the BSC replacement program wouldn’t have gotten to where it is now without the hard work of the seven techs and one program supervisor comprising his two teams. Together, they provide EH&S, FP&M and the entire university with a valuable service that shows no signs of wearing down.

“The operation is running along very well now, and the reception has been very positive,” Tony said. “A lot of people are very interested in the program. I’m very proud of my team.  I work with great and knowledgeable people. I look forward to the success of the program and the growth of my team. I look forward to our contribution to campus and its groundbreaking research.”

Want to learn more about biological safety? More information is available on the EH&S Biocontainment Lab Services webpage. You can get in touch with Tony at tony.mcgrath@wisc.edu.

By Andrew Brunner and Eric Herbst

Eric Herbst was a strategic communications student intern with FP&M Marketing & Communications last year. He graduated with an M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from UW-Madison in December 2023 and holds a B.A. in English and Philosophy as well as a Marketing Minor at St. Ambrose University.