Emerging Roles of Microbiologists Post-COVID

Feb. 16, 2021

When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek looked at rain water through a microscope in the 17th century, he could not have known what a vast and diverse world of microorganisms he would uncover. Throughout the centuries, the microbial sciences have grown to include multiple subfields and scientists studying how a myriad of microorganisms impact our world. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of microbiology to combat current and future pandemics. This was the topic of the virtual symposium “Microbial Science Research in the Post-COVID Environment” held on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 and organized by the American Academy of Microbiology and the ASM Council on Microbial Sciences. The symposium brought together leaders in academia, government and industry to discuss the challenges and opportunities that have been presented to the scientific community because of COVID-19, and ASM will be highlighting these topics over the next few months.

But what will microbiologists' role be after COVID-19? This overarching idea was addressed by many of the panelists, noting that scientists have become public figures who are responsible for communicating and engaging with their communities. As a result, panelists spent time outlining ways for the microbial sciences to prepare and equip future microbiologists to handle these responsibilities not only as scientists, but also as science communicators, ambassadors and advocates.

Microbiologists as Communicators

As the microbial sciences address larger issues on a global stage, the ability to communicate across diverse scientific disciplines will be paramount. In his keynote address, Dr. Nevan Krogan stressed how important it is that scientists learn to break free of academic “silos” and work together to better society. To do so, students in the microbial sciences will need cross-discipline training to understand the principles and ‘language’ of other fields. This training will help microbiologists communicate with others outside their discipline and foster collaborations across diverse fields. For COVID-19, geneticists, virologists, biochemists and systems biologists have all collaborated with epidemiologists and biotechnology firms to develop vaccines. These interdisciplinary types of collaboration will be critical to address future pandemics. 

In addition to communicating with other scientists, microbiologists need to be able to communicate effectively with the public. COVID-19 turned some scientists into public figures seen on the news or quoted in the media. However, many panelists noted that formal training for science communication is rare. Training programs should include courses for science communication with general audiences and highlight careers in science communication for students interested in non-academic careers. Science communication research should be treated with the same respect as novel scientific findings, and society journals should include specific calls for, and inclusion of, science communication publications.

Microbiologists as Science Ambassadors

Science communication training does not advance the microbial sciences unless microbiologists put that training into action. During the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have been called upon to convey information about diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to broad audiences. As Dr. Fred Tenover remarked, “we have to be out front as scientists” to explain the data, while also being transparent about current scientific knowledge and gaps in that knowledge. As science ambassadors, scientists have a duty to engage with their communities to combat misinformation by breaking down complex scientific jargon. Many scientists established relationships with journalists and used social media to tackle the large amounts of misinformation associated with COVID-19. These actions may take many scientists out of their comfort zones, but they are necessary in order to advance public understanding and “validate” the value of science to society.

Successful science engagement takes training and practice. Additionally, strong partnerships with established organizations are necessary to build public trust. Microbial science programs should build relationships with community leaders and underserved groups to understand their needs and concerns. Many of these communities lacked COVID-19 testing and health care availability, resulting in marginalized communities being disproportionally impacted by COVID-19 and shining a light on racial disparities and inequities both in society as well as the microbial sciences. ASM is committed to addressing and fighting systemic inequities. As a starting point for reform, ASM sponsored the #BlackInMicrobiology week that showcased, celebrated and amplified the accomplishments of Black microbiologists. Looking to the future, microbiologists must continually assess their own biases, review and update current institutional polices and create avenues for funding and scientific opportunities for historically excluded groups. Creating sustainable and significant progress towards improved equity and inclusion in the microbial sciences will take considerable time, devotion and engagement on the part of all scientists.

Microbiologists as Advocates

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the role of microbiologists as advocates for the microbial sciences, something that has been a focus of ASM’s leadership since well before the pandemic. This includes working with regulatory agencies to ensure data-driven polices are established. During the COVID-19 pandemic, ASM responded to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s guidance for COVID-19 testing and established protocols for laboratories to verify COVID-19 diagnostic tests approved under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization. ASM continued to advocate for “robust, sustained and predictable funding increases” for basic and translational science in economic stimulus packages. Additionally, ASM highlighted to the administration clinical microbiology laboratory supply shortages impacting diagnostic testing. These efforts by ASM showcase the important role scientific societies have in advancing policies rooted in science that support scientists.

Microbiologists should continue to build personal relationships with congressional representatives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, ASM hosted its annual Hill Day where over 30 early-career scientists reached out virtually to their legislators to explain the impact of COVID-19 on their research and ask for increased and sustained funding for basic and translational research. Microbiologists also participated in congressional briefings to inform policy makers about the science behind COVID-19 vaccines. By establishing and nourishing relationships with policy leaders, scientists can help shape evidence-based polices that will benefit society.
The role of the microbiologist has evolved since Antonie van Leeuwenhoek peered through his self-made microscope and viewed microorganisms for the first time. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the responsibilities of microbiologists to communicate, engage and advocate about science. Investments that embrace inclusion to bring all voices forward will propel the microbial science community to new frontiers of knowledge. Targeted training, funding and partnerships will prepare the next generation of microbiologists to tackle these duties. And just like the microbes they study, microbiologists will learn to adapt to their new roles in a post-COVID-19 world.
The ASM Virtual Symposium resulted from the dedicated efforts of many individuals including the Steering Committee, moderators, and panelists. Thank you to everyone who contributed their insights to this assembly.