So the Pandemic Has Upended Your Education. What’s Next?

April 23, 2020

Although I received my Ph.D. in the last century, I have been mentoring undergraduates, graduate students, medical residents and infectious disease, clinical microbiology and pathology fellows for close to 40 years. I think that gives me a pretty good window into how undergraduates and graduate students in the microbial sciences are feeling right now. Two words come to mind: disappointment and anxiety. 

During a recent phone conversation, an undergraduate student shared her disappointment at not being able to give a poster at our university’s year-end undergrad research symposium. Around the country, both undergraduates and graduate students are experiencing major disappointments. Undergrads are missing much sought-after summer research or clinical experiences. Graduate students’ research seminars and final defenses will be on virtual platforms rather than in familiar rooms filled with fellow labmates, students, postdocs and faculty. Final defenses will be missing family members and their hugs and well wishes after a major career milestone. Disappointment that the presentation planned for a special conference like ASM’s Microbe or Clinical Virology Symposium (CVS) and the interviews for the next career step have been cancelled or put on hold. Finally, the important celebration of graduation with family and friends will not happen.

Perhaps even more concerning is the tremendous anxiety that so many of us are experiencing. For undergrad and graduate students, what will this mean for your future? How does the widespread pause in undergraduate and graduate student research impact the next stages in your career? Will long-term experiments that need constant care have to be started again? How long will this pause be? So many questions.

Right now, so many doors are closed, but I want to assure you other doors in the microbial sciences will be opening in this decade because the world now has a stark reminder of how important the microbial world is in our lives.
I want to share with you part of my early journey and how it impacted my life in the microbial sciences. I was flying home from grad school in early August 1976. I got to talking with the person next me. He asked me the usual, where are you going and what do you do? I told him I was a grad student at University of Kansas studying microbiology. He was reading a newspaper with headlines about a mysterious disease sickening people attending the American Legion national convention in Philadelphia in honor of the country’s bicentennial year. We would later learn the mortality rate in those infected was 16%. He asked me what I thought. I told him I wondered if it might be the plague (I was so naïve). I thought it very odd that the disease was only occurring in Legionnaires and we wondered aloud if this group was intentionally targeted (I was so naïve). 

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) at 106,650X magnification reveals ultrastructural morphology of Legionella pneumophila bacteria, captured during the process of cell division within a lung macrophage.
Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) at 106,650X magnification reveals ultrastructural morphology of Legionella pneumophila bacteria, captured during the process of cell division within a lung macrophage.
Source: CDC Public Health Image Library/Dr. Francis Chandler
Later, we would learn that the air conditioning system in the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel was contaminated with a novel bacterium, Legionella pneumophilia. Many of the Legionnaires gathered in the air conditioned lobby, and this was proven epidemiologically to be a major risk factor for acquiring the disease. We also learned that others were infected, including employees of the hotel, with at least some having mild or no symptoms (sound familiar?). The Centers for Disease Control, as it was called then, did the type of shoe-leather epidemiologic and laboratory investigation for which they are justifiably globally respected that solved this difficult mystery. Like COVID-19, Legionella causes severe pneumonia in those who are older with underlying disease, and as we have subsequently learned, both can be problematic on cruise ships. Unlike COVID-19, Legionella is not transmitted from person-to-person. It can be treated with antimicrobials, we know how it spreads and there are proven mitigation strategies.

This was my first taste of what would become a life-long adventure in recognizing and trying to understand emerging infectious diseases. My first clinical laboratory encounter with an emerging infectious disease, Clostridium difficile, would occur just 2 years later in 1978. Since then, there have been over 50 more, many of which I have investigated, read, thought, written and taught about. These emerging infectious diseases have provided me with opportunities that I could never imagine would be available to a person who grew up in a rural, small town in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts.

It is important to note that the US federal government spent billions of dollars for research into agents of bioterrorism and public health infrastructure following the 2001 anthrax attacks, which killed 5 people. It seems almost certain that global investments in addressing this, and by extension the next, pandemic will be significant. Such investments will provide you with exciting opportunities where you can make great contributions to humanity.

You may be asking yourself, “I want to join the invisible army of scientists who will battle the next HIV, the next Ebola, the next COVID-19, but how do I do that?” For undergraduates who want to be on the front lines of patient care, there are a rich array of medical careers where you can provide “expert mercy.” Importantly, that includes medical laboratory science, the professionals who perform the tests we hear about daily. This testing is critical in fighting the current stage of the crisis, but may be even more important for the next stage, which will be characterized by diagnosis, isolation and contact tracing. If you intend to apply to health-related professional and science-related graduate programs, you may be able to join the fight against COVID-19 almost immediately as a contact tracer for your city, county or state health department. Estimates suggest that tens of thousands will be needed. Undergrads unsure about their future plans may wish to explore a whole array of fields important to responding to new emerging infectious disease threats: microbiology, virology, molecular biology, field biology, epidemiology, immunology, bioengineering, pathology, pharmacology, bioinformatics, biostatistics and bioremediation to name a few. 

For those who study some aspect of the microbial sciences at the graduate school level, the career opportunities will be exciting and, yes, unimaginable. Will opportunities appear that might save you from a seemingly endless string of postdoc and research associate positions? In my lifetime, I started in a clinical microbiology laboratory in which Pasteur would have been comfortable, and retired from one where robots do repetitive tasks and perform laboratory techniques, such as PCR, that were unimaginable when I started my career. Two disciplines that did not exist a generation ago, genomics and bioinformatics, provide the skill sets that allowed the sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome and the development of a diagnostic test in days instead of months. These same skills will be necessary to understand the evolution of the virus, knowledge essential in vaccine development.

Perhaps the clinical laboratory field has appeal if you want to design the tests to detect “new” pathogens that are necessary for both individual care and understanding its spread in the community. Maybe the challenge of the medical device and diagnostic medicine industry that work hand-in-hand with the public health and diagnostic testing community will present opportunities that you can’t resist. Maybe you will want to be on a team in the pharmaceutical industry that will develop the vaccines that bring “life back to normal” or produce the life-saving medicine for a loved one on a ventilator. These fields will need to turn the discoveries you are making today into the tools that will be needed to battle the inevitable next pandemic. 

What if careers that are medically oriented are of little interest to you? Remember that the work of people studying bacteria in hot springs led to the development of PCR, one of the essential tools used in diagnostic medicine. Studies of the interaction of microbes in any number of environments has resulted in explosive growth in our understanding of microbiomes. This knowledge is already impacting human and animal health. It is likely to be important in bioremediation efforts and give us new strategies to address global warming. Maybe your goal is to engage, teach and inspire the next generation of microbial scientists. Whatever your choice, society needs you more than ever.

What will the impact of this pandemic mean for your career? What career path will you take? My reply is, what will you have in your toolbox? Can you envision how your current research skills can be applied to future career opportunities?  Even though Pasteur would find what any one of you know about the microbial sciences mind boggling, his words of advice from the 19th century still ring true, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” 

Be hopeful; we are all in this together; this too will pass.

Author: Peter Gilligan, Ph.D., D(ABMM), F(AAM)

Peter Gilligan, Ph.D., D(ABMM), F(AAM)
Peter Gilligan, Ph.D., D(ABMM), F(AAM) is the former Director of the Clinical Microbiology-Immunology Laboratories at the University of North Carolina Hospitals.