Medical Microbiologists and Laboratorians Play Crucial Role in the Future of Health Care

June 1, 2020

Dr. Carey-Ann Burnham serves as Professor of Pathology & Immunology, Molecular Microbiology, Pediatrics & Medicine, Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine and Medical Director of Clinical Microbiology, Barnes Jewish Hospital.

We asked Dr. Burnham to reflect on her career and experiences in the fight against COVID-19.

Dr. Carey-Ann Burnham
Dr. Carey-Ann Burnham

Dr. Burnham, can you tell us about your work and the impact it has on the fight against COVID-19?

This has been a time of great visibility for the profession of laboratory medicine. In the era of COVID-19, every time you open your computer or turn on the television, you hear about “test, test, test.” During COVID-19, our efforts have focused on expanding capabilities for diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 in our laboratory. This has been an amazing feat of teamwork, bringing together microbiologists, molecular testing experts, the hospital system and laboratory directors. We were able to scale up from performing about 50 tests per day for SARS-CoV-2, to being able to perform more than 1,000 tests per day. This required validation and implementation of 7 testing platforms! Through accurate and timely testing for SARS-CoV-2, we have been able to identify cases and understand the scope of the disease in our hospital and our community.

For you, what has presented the biggest challenge surrounding COVID-19?

There have been several challenges around diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2. Supply chain constraints have been a significant limiting factor in scaling up testing, and I would classify this as the biggest challenge to the COVID-19 response in the field of clinical microbiology. These constraints have impacted every part of the process, including personal protective equipment (PPE) for specimen collection, swabs, transport media for the swabs and supplies to perform the tests. Letting obstacles get in the way was not an option, so we had to continuously innovate, iterate and be creative. In addition, using 7 different test platforms comes with all sorts of logistical challenges in the laboratory! Given the visibility of testing for SARS-CoV-2 in the media, another important challenge has been education about the different types of tests for SARS-CoV-2 and when and how the different types of tests can and should be used.

What do you consider the most rewarding part of your career?

I love education and mentoring, and one of the greatest privileges of my career is that I get to participate in the training and education of so many outstanding individuals. Today, the part of my career that I am most proud of is the medical microbiology fellowship training program that I direct. It is wonderful to see the trainees learn and grow and then go on to excel in the field of clinical microbiology and become the next generation of leaders.

ASM members are making a difference during the pandemic. What advice would you give to your trainees as they pursue a career in science?

The field of clinical microbiology is rapidly changing and growing and, with emerging diseases and novel diagnostics, it is more exciting than ever. This is a great time to enter the profession. Don't be afraid to take opportunities when they come up. Sometimes, taking an opportunity means putting yourself out there and potentially failing. Don't let being afraid stop you from going for it. Finally, I like to remind trainees that success is infinite, and others' success does not mean there is less for you. Build up those around you and celebrate the success of others.

Looking forward, what makes you most excited about the future of the field of microbiology?

This is a very exciting time to be in the field of clinical microbiology. The technological advances are moving the science forward at a blistering pace and allowing us to answer new types of questions. Medical microbiologists and laboratorians have an important role to play in the future of health care. Emerging illnesses are having an important impact on public health around the globe, and clinical laboratories are challenged to rapidly respond with diagnostic testing methods for these emerging illnesses. I am most excited about moving the knowledge and advancement from fundamental scientific inquiry to the clinical laboratory, taking these scientific findings and applying them to the care of our patients with the goal of improved clinical outcomes.

Dr. Burnham is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and recipient of the 2020 ASM Award for Research and Leadership in Clinical Microbiology.

Author: American Academy of Microbiology

American Academy of Microbiology
The American Academy of Microbiology is the honorific leadership group within ASM.