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VCU alum works on COVID-19 response team in Hawai'i

Joanna Kettlewell, Ph.D., is a scientist specializing in infectious disease.
Joanna Kettlewell

While many of us were quarantining at home for the majority of 2020, VCU alum Joanna Kettlewell, Ph.D., was on the front lines. Kettlewell, who graduated from VCU in 2013 with her Bachelor of Science degree in biology/biological sciences and a minor in chemistry, spent 2020 studying COVID-19 in the Medical Microbiology and Laboratory Preparedness and Response Branches at the Hawai'i State Laboratories Division. Thanks to her research and dedication, Kettlewell and her team expanded testing and control of COVID-19 in Hawai'i.

While at VCU, Kettlewell was a member of the Phi Eta Sigma National Honor Society and participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), where her passion for science started. After graduating magna cum laude, Kettlewell continued working as a mental health technician while also becoming a scientist at the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services for the Commonwealth of Virginia, before pursuing her Ph.D. in tropical medicine, medical microbiology and pharmacology from the John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa.

We were excited to chat with Kettlewell about her career journey.

Describe your career since graduating from VCU.

I graduated from VCU in 2013 and was offered a position as a scientist at the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS), perhaps more commonly known as the state laboratory of Virginia. At DCLS, I was introduced to the larger field of infectious disease and public health, with a particular focus on food and enteric microbiology. At DCLS, I worked side by side with experienced clinical microbiologists. I became enthralled by the important role that public health laboratories play in disease surveillance and outbreaks, so I made the decision to return to school to deepen my knowledge base and begin building the skills I needed to be a leader in science and public health.

My dissertation research as a Ph.D. candidate focused on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection of the brain and the potential use of pharmaceutical interventions to prevent HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders. In May of 2020, I earned a doctorate in tropical medicine, medical microbiology and pharmacology from the John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. Shortly thereafter, I began the role I currently have at the Hawaii State Laboratories Division as an Association of Public Health Laboratories COVID-19 postdoctoral fellow under the mentorship of laboratory director Edward Desmond, Ph.D.

To this point, my career has provided an exciting mixture of academic research, clinical laboratory science and public health.  

What is your day-to-day like as a postdoctoral fellow at the Association of Public Health Laboratories?

The variety in my daily schedule emphasizes the communication and teamwork necessary between federal, state and local entities to reduce the spread of disease, particularly during a pandemic such as we are seeing now.   

I work closely with the Wastewater Branch for the collection of sewage directly from congregate facilities for COVID-19 surveillance. I collaborate with epidemiologists within the Disease Outbreak Control Division and staff at correctional facilities on the use and appropriate implementation of point-of-care COVID-19 tests. I coordinate with the Hawai'i National Guard for COVID-19 testing events. I work behind the scenes to provide an informational framework for the COVID-19 call center. To further assist with clear messaging, I meet regularly with community organizations with the goal of improving educational outreach regarding the COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine registration, especially for the kupuna (elderly) of Hawai'i. And of course, as a laboratory fellow, I devote time in the laboratory to COVID-19 testing.

What aspect of your work are you particularly proud to have had a hand in?

I am particularly proud of the work I’m doing as the scientific lead to optimize and implement wastewater testing for congregate facilities such as nursing homes. Data shows that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is detectable in wastewater days before clinical cases appear. By identifying SARS-CoV-2 in sewage, it would indicate the need for clinical testing, allowing for swift intervention and ultimately stemming the spread of COVID-19 disease. This strategy has the potential to reduce the deaths in high-risk populations such as the elderly. 

How did your experience at VCU inform your career path?

My interest in infectious disease was sparked as an undergraduate at VCU.  I saw a poster for a course entitled Phage Discovery Lab sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. At the time, I was not aware that “phages” were viruses that infect bacteria or that they were being studied as having potential therapeutic value. During the course, our class attended a small conference at which William Jacobs, Ph.D., a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, spoke about his work studying Mycobacterium leprae in nine-banded armadillos. I immediately saw that a career in science and research in infectious disease and therapeutics could have a far-reaching positive impact on the lives of people across the globe.

After the course, I sought out extracurricular experiences in undergraduate research. I worked with Allison Johnson, Ph.D., studying HIV integrase, the protein responsible for the integration of HIV DNA into host cell DNA. I also participated in VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). The professors and mentors I had at VCU were encouraging, supportive and clearly loved the path they had chosen for a career in science, which made a strong impression on me.

What is one of your favorite memories from your time as a VCU student?

One of my favorite memories at VCU was when the men’s basketball team made it to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in the program’s history in 2011. The atmosphere around campus and Richmond was electric.  

What advice would you offer a current VCU student?

The best advice I can offer to a current VCU student is to explore your interests and take full advantage of the resources that VCU provides. The Campus Learning Center provides tutoring, which I utilized for some of my more difficult courses including calculus and calculus-based physics. Also, don’t hesitate to meet with your professors outside of class time. VCU may have large classes, but your professors overwhelmingly want to see you succeed!