A Summer Job Blossoms into a Career in Clinical Microbiology
Career Story by Fred C. Tenover, Ph.D. D(ABMM), Vice President of Scientific Affairs, Adjunct Professor Emory University, and Consulting Professor Stanford University School of Medicine.
“Would you like a summer job?” That is how my career as a clinical microbiologist began. I was ending my sophomore year as an undergraduate at the University of Dayton (UD), having spent the prior summer studying theology and philosophy in Europe. The job I was offered was at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Dayton in the microbiology laboratory, setting up cultures on patient specimens. I knew how to culture bacteria from my research project but there seemed to be much more to working in a hospital laboratory. I was up for the challenge. It did not take me long to realize that being a clinical microbiologist was a great career choice. As a laboratory director I would have the opportunity to be directly involved in patient care, to teach, and to perform applied research, all the while earning a hard salary from the hospital, as opposed to writing grants. I was hooked.
I graduated from UD with a BS degree in biology and chemistry and attended the University of Rochester (UR) for my Masters and PhD degrees in Medical Microbiology, studying antibiotic resistance in the human pathogen, Neisseria gonorrheae. UR had an outstanding clinical microbiology laboratory and it just so happened that my thesis advisor, Dr. Frank Young, who was Chairman of Microbiology, was also interested in clinical laboratory science. In graduate school, I learned how to formulate a scientific hypothesis and conduct research while taking many of my microbiology classes with the medical school class. Clinical case studies helped me understand what information doctors wanted from microbiologists and how much they often did not understand about the fundamentals of laboratory testing (a very important lesson).
After completing my MS and PhD, I headed west to Seattle for a post-doctoral fellowship in clinical microbiology and public health at the University of Washington. It was here that I learned my trade as a clinical microbiologist, rounding three times a week on the bone marrow transplant unit and helping oncologists select and interpret laboratory tests for infectious diseases. As I continued my research on mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance, it became clear that there was a considerable need to develop better strain typing techniques to understand outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant infections in both hospital and community settings. My first real foray into public health was in helping to solve an outbreak of Yersinia enterocolitica infections that was disseminated through locally made tofu. Using plasmid fingerprinting, I was able to show that it was contaminated tofu and not other foods that spread the disease. I applied a similar technique to an outbreak of multidrug-resistant Serratia marcescens in the Seattle Veterans hospital showing that prophylactic use of gentamicin in urology patients was a contributing factor in keeping the outbreak going.
After eight years in Seattle, including brief stints working in microbiology laboratories in Thailand and Egypt, I moved to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia where I spent the next 19 years in public health activities with a focus on hospital-acquired infections and controlling the spread of multidrug-resistant organisms. I also served as a faculty member in the Department of Epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. It was in these two roles (public health and academic researcher) that my career as a “science translator” really blossomed by taking key scientific advances, like the technique of PCR, and applying it both to rapid diagnostics and epidemiologic studies of infectious diseases. I also spent a lot of time working with the World Health Organization to expand surveillance for antimicrobial resistant infections globally. Having some experience in global health issues is something I highly recommend to anyone interested in medical sciences as it provides a better perspective of the impact of one’s work.
In 2008, I decided it was time to try something new and joined Cepheid, a molecular diagnostics company in Sunnyvale, California, as the director of scientific affairs. At Cepheid, I have contributed to the design and development of a variety of new diagnostic tests to identify patients who were either colonized or infected with multidrug-resistant organisms. I have continued to serve as a faculty member at Emory University and also accepted a faculty appointment at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the Pathology Department, where I teach and collaborate on research projects. Having links to academia continues to be very rewarding.
Research on antimicrobial resistance and molecular diagnostics has been at the heart of my scientific career but I also have enjoyed my role as a scientific translator, making the tools of molecular biology understandable to the clinical microbiology community. I continue to warn about the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance and encourage physicians to embrace rapid diagnostic tools as a way of improving antimicrobial use and decreasing the spread of infectious diseases globally.
To learn more about my experiences and how you can consider a similar career path, please join me Friday March 24 at 1:00 pm in the Medical Center Natapow Conference Room (1-9545). If you’d like to hear more about my science, please contact Paul Dunman (firstname.lastname@example.org) to ask about attending my lecture in Drug Discovery Friday March 24 at 9:30 am.
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