FOCUS ON FELLOWS
Focus on Fellows : Megan Nelson
By Rudolph Nowak , MPH , senior specialist , Marketing & Communications
Megan Nelson read Richard Preston ’ s The Hot Zone about the Ebola outbreak in Reston , VA in the late 1980s during her senior year in high school as required reading for her high school English class .
“ I thought ‘ oh , this is a really cool career path ’— the whole SIL level 4 , being in a full hazmat suit for whatever reason was really enticing to me ,’” Nelson said . She went on to the University of Wisconsin on a pre-med track but decided being patient-facing was not for her . She decided to pursue a bacteriology degree but was still unsure of what she wanted to do .
“ I wanted to do something that had an actual impact ... I didn ’ t just want to make money or sell products .”
During her senior year of college , Nelson still was unsure of what she wanted to do with her degree . For her master ’ s , she focused on programs that would give her more clinical opportunities . She found a master of science in Microbiology with an emphasis on Clinical Microbiology at the University of Wisconsin , La Crosse . A lot of the courses were cross listed with their Clinical Laboratory Services ( CLS ) program .
“ I had never heard of CLS until I read about this program . I was like , ‘ what the heck ? I could have been doing this the entire time ?’”
Nelson went through three different rotations in her master ’ s program : a hospital clinical laboratory , a research laboratory and a public health laboratory . One of the projects for the public health rotation was duping a comparison study for culturing Carbapenemresistant Enterobacteriaceae ( CREs ) from colonization screening swabs .
“ The public health one drew me in . That was my first introduction to the Antibiotic Resistance ( AR ) Lab Network and that opened the world of AR for me .”
The director of her graduate program got an email about the APHL-CDC Antibiotic Resistance Fellowship and sent it out to the students .
“ This seemed like a really great opportunity , and I still really didn ’ t know how I was going to break into the clinical world even having the master ’ s because I didn ’ t have the certification . I knew I was going to be competing with CLS students who had a year internship and a certification as part of their degree . I felt having a fellowship component would be more beneficial than just trying to break into a clinical setting .”
Fellowship During a Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic left an impression from her fellowship .
“ I remember vividly sitting at my desk at the beginning of January ( 2020 ) and there was an article on CNN or something and it was about this virus . I looked at one of my colleagues across the office space and asked if they had read about this . He hadn ’ t and I told him . Three months later we were told that it was the beginnings of a pandemic .”
In early April 2020 , Nelson ’ s mentor , Microbiology Supervisor Ryan Jepson , was tapped to turn the training laboratory in the basement into a COVID-19 testing section . He asked Nelson to halt her fellowship projects and help with the testing section .
“ It was a long , hard process but it was a really great experience . It was long days ; there were a lot of validations . We did a 2,000 + sample validation in two weeks . Then we started testing . At the max we were testing like 6,000 samples a day .”
In addition to the testing , instrument changes and procedures were constantly changing . Nelson was also handling the scheduling of the testing section and overseeing its accessioning , processing and extraction process .
“ My laboratory director ( Dr . Michael Pentella ) pulled me aside one day in the thick of things and he was like ‘ I promise , it ’ s not always like this . I promise it ’ s not .’”
Nelson responded “ I believe you . I feel like I have gotten 10 years of experience in three and a half .”
A position opened in the Microbiology section near the end of Nelson ’ s fellowship . She decided she wanted to stay in Iowa , so she applied for the position and was hired .
Nelson worked as an analyst for one year . Then the environmental microbiology manager retired , and the microbiology supervisor was hired for that position . So , Nelson applied for the microbiology supervisor position and was hired .
“ I know there are people who want to have an impact and public health isn ’ t the most direct impact . It ’ s not one patient , one problem . It is a whole community of problems ,” Nelson said . Her experience as a fellow influenced her to become a mentor .
“ Don ’ t be afraid to try it . [ Mentoring is ] a great way to recruit staff for a laboratory , and get projects and validations done without burning out staff . You get to be a direct , meaningful part of someone ’ s story and watch them be successful . It is also an opportunity to bring new perspectives into the laboratory , which in turn creates opportunities for growth for yourself and your staff .” g
4 LAB MATTERS Spring 2023