Where Activism Meets Science: Spotlight on Russell Thomas

Nov. 16, 2023

Russell Thomas
Russell Thomas
Source: Russell Thomas
For Russell Thomas, MPH, embracing one's personal identity and experiences when pursuing scientific research is crucial. Their dedication to addressing public health challenges in their community is a testament to the power of diverse perspectives in shaping the future of science. “Often in STEM, it's forgotten that everyone approaches science from a unique standpoint—you should use yours to pursue the research that is important, compelling and necessary to you,” Thomas said. “We're told not to bring our identities to the table when we do science, but it absolutely determines the types of questions that we ask and what's prioritized.” 

Thomas, a senior associate of business and strategy at SalivaDirect Inc., started their microbiology journey as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). At UC Davis, Thomas completed their basic science coursework and worked in a clinical microbiology and immunology lab pouring agar plates, stocking supplies and conducting general maintenance in the UC Davis School of Medicine. Though Thomas harbored a keen interest in science, they would soon depart from lab work and STEM altogether. 

"I felt excluded from the curricula and the academic culture. I did not connect well with my classmates or the faculty, and it felt like a very heteronormative environment,” they reflected. Thomas noted a study they had encountered, which explained how LGBTQIA+ students were almost 10% less likely to stay enrolled in STEM programs compared to non-LGBTQIA+ students. “I thought, ‘hey, that’s me.’” 

Pivoting from the sciences, Thomas earned degrees in gender, sexuality and women’s studies, and American studies. Still, science found a way in—much of Thomas’ coursework focused on the intersection between queer and feminist history and science and technology studies. Their classes also wove together activism and public health, focusing on topics such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.  

“I found a more supportive community in gender, sexuality and women’s studies, and American studies,” they said. “I’m thankful that I did move away [from STEM] at the time, because I ended up focusing a lot on public health within the humanities. With my basic science background, I was already well positioned to do work in public health and clinical microbiology spaces.” 

Outside of the classroom, Thomas became involved in various public health initiatives on campus, including providing safer sex education for college students and operating syringe exchange and harm reduction programs. 

The uncertainty of a post-graduation path is a common experience, but Thomas’ journey took an unexpected turn when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. As they sought their next step, an opportunity emerged that would become a pivotal moment in their career. “After I graduated from UC Davis, I felt pretty aimless,” they said. “I didn’t really know what my path forward was going to be, and I applied to a few humanities grad programs thinking I was going to continue with that, but when COVID-19 hit, I ended up switching and applying to [public health] programs because I wanted to be involved in the pandemic response.”  

While they waited to hear back from graduate programs, a serendipitous job posting in Los Angeles offered them the opportunity to manage a COVID-19 surveillance testing program at a local community center. With their background in microbiology and a determination to contribute to the pandemic response, they embraced this role and made a significant impact on their local community. 

The community center used a PCR machine for surveillance testing, but it lacked the certification needed to report individual test results. Rather, the team would notify families if someone in their household had tested positive for COVID-19. 

“The very first time I tested a pooled sample for that organization, it came back positive. This very immediately demonstrated the importance of the program, as well as how bringing the laboratory closer to the people it serves has a demonstrable impact for preventing further transmission,” Thomas said. "I've really taken that with me; that was a very pivotal moment for me during the pandemic and for my career.” 

The sample type the community center utilized was saliva. “I routinely watched parents get samples from their small children, and I thought, ‘this is going to be way easier than a nasal swab.’” It was, in part, through this experience and realization about sample collection that Thomas chose the Yale School of Public Health for their graduate studies, as Anne Wyllie, Ph.D., an epidemiology research scientist, worked on saliva as a sample type for the detection of respiratory pathogens at Yale University. 

Russell Thomas (left) and Yasmine Ali (right), the Executive Director of SalivaDirect Inc.
Russell Thomas (left) and Yasmine Ali (right), the Executive Director of SalivaDirect Inc.
Source: Russell Thomas

Shortly after starting their graduate program at Yale, Thomas joined Wyllie’s team at SalivaDirect Inc. They contributed to emerging literature on COVID-19 screening and diagnostic testing, and even went on to collaborate with Wyllie for their thesis, which investigated the detection of mpox virus in saliva.  

Reflecting on how their own identity as a queer, nonbinary person has influenced their scientific queries, Thomas recalled when mpox started to re-emerge in the U.S. in 2022. “The virus was starting to disproportionately affect members of my community, and I was really startling to see people I knew get sick and feel powerless because they couldn’t access testing,” they said. “At the time, I was well poised to make contributions and build the evidence base for what I thought could be an alternative way to get around some of these [access-related] issues.” 

Saliva is recognized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a source of transmission for mpox. “I was interested in seeing if it could be used as an alternative specimen type, particularly for increasing testing access, which was limited initially,” Thomas explained. “A lot of people get symptoms prior to the development of lesions. So, when lesions are the reference sample type, how do you diagnose people who are showing signs of illness, but don’t have lesions?”  

Thomas’ team examined how time and temperature impacted detection ability, considering how saliva samples may be collected at a significant distance from the diagnostics lab. This research underscored the use case for saliva as a means to test for mpox, especially for detecting asymptomatic infections. Furthermore, eliminating the use of DNA extraction could also reduce the cost of each test because more expensive reagents would not be required. 

“I had this amazing ASM moment where I got to speak on a panel regarding [my thesis work] at ASM Microbe 2023,” they said. “It was a really awesome experience knowing that I was contributing to the field in a meaningful way and getting to talk to other leading scientists about this [re-emerging] infectious disease.” 

Recently, Thomas has focused on the business development side of things for SalivaDirect Inc., as well as conducting literature reviews and developing proposals for study designs. SalivaDirect Inc.’s work encompasses the development and validation of diagnostic testing using saliva samples, contributing to the evolving field of infectious disease detection. The organization deploys these saliva-based tests through innovative delivery systems, like mobile laboratories and vending machines. Thomas' aspirations for the future include further exploration of emerging infectious diseases, sexually transmitted infections, next-generation sequencing and improving access to diagnostics. 

Thomas' story serves as an inspiring reminder that in the world of science, embracing one’s unique perspective can lead to research that is not only important, but necessary in supporting public health and well-being. Their passion for public health and microbiology, combined with a commitment to LGBTQIA+ community health, culminated in groundbreaking research on mpox testing using saliva samples. This journey not only highlights the importance of inclusivity and representation in science, but also exemplifies how personal experiences can drive innovative solutions to public health challenges.


Author: Leah Potter, M.S.

Leah Potter, M.S.
Leah Potter joined ASM in 2022 as the Communications Specialist.