Recipient of ASM Career Development Grant for Postdoctoral Women Implements Microbiology Testing in Egypt

Nov. 13, 2019

Dr. Christy Harrison got her Ph.D. in Immunology at the University of Arizona, with a doctoral minor in Public Health. Currently, she is doing a fellowship at the New York City Public Health Lab. She received the ASM Career Development Grant for Postdoctoral Women in 2019 and used the funds to establish basic microbiology testing at a hospital in Aswan, Egypt.

How did you decide to use the grant to help a hospital in Aswan, Egypt?

The project was a great fit between the hospital needs, my training and my desire to grow as a global health professional.

The hospital in Aswan wanted the ability to culture patient specimens, a basic need for a microbiology lab. Their goals were to advance their testing capacity significantly and lay a foundation for future visiting professionals to build upon. At the same time, my fellowship, which is designed to produce leadership in the public health laboratory, encouraged the development of a new testing unit as part of my growth. The opportunity also fits in a global context, which is something I am passionate about. It was a win-win-win. The grant money ensured that it could go from a great idea to a reality.

How did you pick the Al Germaniyya hospital in Aswan, Egypt? How does someone find hospitals to help?

My connection with the hospital was somewhat incidental. I first learned of them through my partner’s medical global health work. When I asked whether they had laboratory needs, the answer was an enthusiastic yes. From there, I connected more directly with hospital leadership to probe the needs of the hospital and what I might reasonably be able to assist with, and the project was formed. Many hospitals, like the one I visited, take visiting physicians, but having laboratory professionals volunteer to come is much more rare. Because of that, the need is quite high. However, the needed laboratory support structures in many places are also limited, so be discerning and ask lots of questions.

For global health-minded laboratorians, I would first recommend seeking out organizations that are already doing fantastic global health work, such as the Association for Public Health Laboratories, ASM or CDC. These organizations have excellent infrastructure for working with foreign laboratories. If you connect with a hospital separately, make sure you are in conversations with professionals, both domestically, and at the site, to ensure your intervention will address a genuine need, be attainable and sustainable. Definitely collaborate. Define expectations on either side.

Were there any challenges in Egypt that you had to overcome?

The beautiful, exhilarating and challenging experience was possible because of the help of many people who offered support and shared their knowledge. One microbiologist in Egypt provided information on the common clinical lab practice there, which helped adjust my expectations. Another Cairo-based researcher did a site-visit in the lab to evaluate what the most pressing needs were, which helped immensely, since I was only going to be in Egypt for about a month. Hospital staff answered my questions about training, resources, equipment and space. I was able to find a distributor in Egypt who kindly answered all of my reagent questions and quoted prices so that I could develop possible budgets. I bounced numerous questions to my colleagues at the NYC public health lab about scientific alternatives when developing a protocol. There were some arguably critical reagents we couldn’t get.

While in Egypt, I found that communication was a challenge on multiple levels. For example, communicating about precision and care in science, and with hospital leadership about the timing and necessity of various experimental procedures, were unique challenges. The lab-physician communication was a new concept that was difficult to instill. My biggest concerns were sustainability and quality control.

Team members showing off their plate streaking practice.
Team members showing off their plate streaking practice.
Source: American Society for Microbiology

There were times when I thought about the educational, linguistic, budgetary and procurement barriers and I felt a sinking pit in my stomach. But to my continued amazement, the pieces all came together. It seemed that at every turn, the support showed up. The lab staff themselves were so dedicated and eager to learn, and it would have been much harder without their enthusiasm. We did the best we could with the reagents and time we had, and so far they are still doing well now that I’ve returned home. My hope is that they have a foundation that can be built into something even better.

The experience in Egypt sounds exciting, how did you find your passion in Public Health?

I have always been interested in science, in other cultures and in humans flourishing, but somehow each of those passions were separate in my mind for much of my life. All of those ideas really coalesced for me when I took a service trip to Malawi during graduate school. I saw a clear role for my skills in science to be used in public and global health service. That moment was critical and enlightening in forming my career path, and I felt like all of the pieces finally made sense.

After Malawi, I pursued a doctoral minor in Public Health while finishing my Ph.D. and wanted to be more aware of, and involved in, the public health world. After graduate school, I landed in the New York City Public Health Lab in a unique fellowship that provides the opportunity to combine my skills in the lab with a desire to grow in both public health and leadership.

What kinds of skills did you learn during your Ph.D. that you were able to translate to the project in Aswan?

I think doing a Ph.D. in basic research is incredibly valuable to learn resourcefulness, problem solving and classical science training. There are many moments in a Ph.D. when you have an experiment or project you want to do, but you have to figure out how to do it. You have to think through all the pieces of scientific feasibility, technical know-how, procurement, etc. A Ph.D. taught me to be both resourceful and independent, but also to ask for help and seek the collaboration and expertise of others. One of the biggest lessons in graduate school for me was that I could not (and was not expected to) be a one woman show. Resourcefulness was helpful in overcoming various limitations, but collaboration was a decidedly critical aspect of the project in Aswan.

I think the additional public health clinical training in my current fellowship was really critical for this particular project in Aswan. Clinical lab science is much more regulated than academic science, and my fellowship in public health has given me a necessary appreciation for that. I had more exposure to laboratory workflows from a systems level, which was also helpful when starting a new testing unit elsewhere. The fellowship also connected me to many of the people who would ultimately be important for the project.

What other fellowships exist for graduate students who want to go into public health?

There are several. If you are interested in global health from a more academic angle, the Fogarty Fellowship is hosted by a number of institutions. This fellowship sponsors a year of global health research at a host lab overseas. The Laboratory Leadership Service or Epidemic Intelligence Service fellowships through the CDC are competitive and excellent fellowships in laboratory or epidemiology service, respectively. If you are interested in laboratory directorship, an important qualification is board certification, in which case you should think about the CPEP accredited fellowships for medical microbiology. The Association for Public Health Laboratories also offers a number of masters- and postdoctoral fellowships in different topics.

Author: Christy Clutter, Ph.D.

Christy Clutter, Ph.D.
Christy Clutter, Ph.D., is a scientist, microbiome aficionado and writer whose research work focused on gut immunity and the microbiota, along with public health disparities in nutrition.