By Laura Siegel, Specialist, NCPHLL
It’s fellowship season at APHL! Last month we received over 315 applications for the 2014-2015 class of EID fellows. As the review committee evaluates this year’s applicants, let’s take a look back and see what members of last year’s class are up to.
“It boggled my mind that there are invisible little creatures that can infect you. The fact that you can’t even see them with the naked eye – and they’re crawling all over you, is fascinating,” said Kayleigh Jennings, PulseNet Specialist and Biological Scientist III, at the Florida Department of Health- Bureau of Public Health Laboratories in Tampa, Florida.
By the time Kayleigh hit middle school, she knew she was interested with science, and ever since that first microbiology lesson, her interest never faltered.
Kayleigh attended the Ohio State University where she majored in Microbiology and minored in Public Health. In her third year at school, she worked at a research facility alongside Michelle Landes, a student who had just received her acceptance into Class 17 of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Fellowship Program. Michelle discussed the program with Kayleigh and encouraged her to apply for Class 18. Kayleigh was so excited about the opportunity she completed the application nearly a year before it was due.
Ten months later, she packed up her life into her small sedan and made the trek from Ohio to sunny Florida to start her dream job as an EID fellow. Florida was high on Kayleigh’s list not just for its sunny weather, but because her host laboratory, the Florida Department of Health, allowed her to rotate through all the various departments within the lab. This flexibility led her to discover what she enjoyed doing most – working with Salmonella outbreak surveillance using pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and PulseNet – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national network connecting cases of foodborne illness to detect outbreaks.
“Analyzing Salmonella – I felt like I was doing something important,” said Kayleigh. “It’s gratifying — I’ve seen a series of DNA patterns that are exactly the same, which means they could be a cluster contributing to an outbreak. I’ve had times where I’ve had to make a phone call to the epidemiologist, and say ‘You should take a look at this…”
One day Kayleigh was glad she didn’t have to make that call; the day she came across one of the most virulent Salmonella strains she had ever seen.
“An 18 year old boy originally from Nigeria came to a local ER soon after he presented with symptoms, and passed away a few hours later. The medical examiner routinely sends cultures to the Clinical Microbiology Department at the Department of Health for analysis, and it was determined to be an atypical septicemic Salmonella infection. Since the Salmonella was isolated, the sample was then sent to our PFGE laboratory, and thus landed in my hands.” said Kayleigh.
After running PFGE, uploading the pattern to the appropriate databases, and sending the sample to the CDC for further verification, it was quickly determined that it was a rare strain, not typically endemic to the U.S. Thankfully, this particular strain posed little risk to the rest of the population.
While death from Salmonella is rare, foodborne illnesses are quite common and can make individuals very ill without proper treatment. With more than 48 million people in the US acquiring foodborne illnesses each year, food surveillance systems and the laboratory professionals that support them are critical.
“Foodborne illnesses are not going away anytime soon. If someone is sick, you want to know if that strain is contributing to an outbreak. If there was no PFGE or food safety… an outbreak could be spreading rampant and no one would know.”
Other highlights from Kayleigh’s fellowship include working in a BSL-3 laboratory for the first time, touring the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, GA, and training at the local county health department.
“I never would have had any of these life-changing experiences if not for this fellowship,” she said.
When asked about her future plans, she said, “Will I stay in public health? Definitely — I don’t even know what else I would do,” she joked. “I enjoy helping, and I like the feeling that what I do matters.”
Stay tuned for more posts on past EID fellows!