Journey to Expertise: From Microbiology Enthusiast to Infection Preventionist

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This personal narrative highlights the career path of an individual who transitioned from a passion for microbiology to becoming an infection preventionist. She overcame obstacles through education, internships, and determination and held a crucial role in health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, showcasing the transformative power of education and dedication.

Shannon Simmons, DHSc, MPH, CIC, MLS (ASCP) (Photo courtesy of the author)

Shannon Simmons, DHSc, MPH, CIC, MLS (ASCP), quote:

"Unfortunately, while I was ready to dive headfirst into infection prevention, I was met with the “brick wall” of not being a registered nurse. Traditionally, the IP role was exclusively held by nurses, so not having a nursing background almost thwarted my ambitions of becoming an IP."

(Photo courtesy of the author)

My journey to become an infection preventionist (IP) has taken some unexpected twists and turns. Still, each moment gave me the knowledge base to excel as an IP and curtail my experiences to now be considered a subject matter expert. Considering how much I love infection prevention today, my life goal was to be a microbiologist. I have always been fascinated by the idea that there are living organisms that are too small to be visible to the naked eye but can cause catastrophic turmoil in the human body. Through lots of research, shadowing, and soul searching, I determined that a bachelor's degree in clinical laboratory science would land me the job I was most passionate about. I made one of the best life decisions to attend Texas State University, where I had the privilege to be mentored by the world-renowned Rodney E. Rohde, PhD, MS, SV, SM(ASCP)CM, MBCM, FACSc. Rohde, who holds the rank of professor in the College of Health Professions, is presently serving as the program chair for the clinical laboratory science program at Texas State University. He is a renowned speaker on public health microbiology and adult education topics.

Dr. Simmons' Advice for New Infection Preventionists

"Find a mentor. If you cannot be a part of an official program, reach out to those who have the skills you hope to acquire and build a relationship. The individual knowledge we gain as infection preventionists cannot be contained in a book or journal article, so finding someone who can share their specific experiences with you will be very valuable as you navigate life as an infection preventionist."

I was elated to complete my clinical laboratory science degree and start working as a microbiologist in less than a year after graduation. I enjoyed my time in the lab, but my inquisitive brain yearned for something more, and I found myself pursuing a master of public health degree. Friends and family were perplexed by my decision because I had the job I had always desired since I was a child. Why would I ever return to the hustle and bustle of being a college student while working fulltime? However, I remember a day in the lab at one of my clinical rotations as an undergraduate student and being prompted to talk with the hospital’s infection control practitioner, who had been promoted from her position in the lab to the hospital’s newest IP. I was very intrigued about what her role entailed, but my eyes were set on the prize of being a microbiologist, and I equated that experience to just an interesting day in the lab. I remember telling Rohde weeks later about my experience, and his exact words were, “Some people are leaving the lab to do infection control work in hospitals; it's something to consider one day.” I am pretty sure that was the day that a seed was planted in my brain that being an IP could be a viable option, but I still wasn’t sold on the idea that it was my best career choice.

When I was accepted into the master of public health program at the University of North Texas Health Science, I then believed I wanted to transition entirely away from the lab and work in the nonprofit world. That is why I received a master of public health degree with a concentration in community health. Still, when it was time to apply for an internship to complete the requirements for my degree, there were no options in the nonprofit sector that interested me. However, there was an opportunity to intern with an infection prevention director at a small rehabilitation hospital. I knew this would be how to see what an IP does daily. The months I spent in that hospital were invigorating. I was able to see the direct link between microbiology and patient safety. I knew I was ready to pursue a career in infection prevention, and while it had only been “something to consider one day,” the day had come to take that leap.

Unfortunately, while I was ready to dive headfirst into infection prevention, I was met with the “brick wall” of not being a registered nurse. Traditionally, the IP role was exclusively held by nurses, so not having a nursing background almost thwarted my ambitions of becoming an IP. I was given a chance by Karla Voy-Hatter, RN, who had come out of retirement to take on the intimidating task of being the director of infection prevention at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas, now one of the largest public hospital systems in the country. The hospital averages more than 1 million outpatient visits annually. Services include a Level I Trauma Center, the first verified burn center in North Texas, and a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The system also comprises a network of community-based health centers, including primary care and women's clinics, school-based health centers, and numerous outreach and education programs. Parkland is the primary teaching hospital for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. I credit Voy-Hatter for my career as an IP; not only did she allow me to be an IP without a nursing degree or license, but I received immeasurable experience from a team of 10 IPs with varying backgrounds and years of experience. I wish every novice IP could start their career at a large facility with an amazing team. The experience I gained there allowed me to be knowledgeable, flexible, and creative in my approaches as I have taken on various IP roles.

I enjoyed my time as an IP at Parkland Hospital, but my inquisitive brain yearned for something more, and I found myself pursuing a doctorate of health sciences degree. Again, friends and family were perplexed by my decision because I had a rewarding job and had made it into the career field without a nursing degree or license. Why would I ever return to the hustle and bustle of being a college student while working fulltime? I wanted to advance as an IP, and I believed I had the knowledge and skillset to do so; I just knew others would think that I still needed to have the tenure in the field to match my ambitions. I believed that a doctorate would get employers to take notice of me even though I lacked decades of experience. I chose to go to A.T. Still University, Mesa, Arizona, because its program prepares students to understand better and effectively manage and evaluate solutions to the ongoing challenges of health care access, cost, and quality. This advanced online health science degree program provides health professionals with the knowledge and skills to excel in project management, decision-making, organizational leadership, establishing evidence-based standards, and gaining competencies to apply research to professional practice. Within a couple of months of completing my doctorate, I became a director of infection prevention, and 4 months later, COVID-19 gave me career experience that no degree ever could!

Currently, I am the program manager for ambulatory infection prevention and control for CHRISTUS Health, and this role, created out of a need highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, is truly the culmination of all my professional and educational experiences. Acting as the primary IP for nearly 200 clinics across 3 states and several rural counties, I actively use the skillset I learned as a doctor of health sciences student to apply, translate, and disseminate research into professional practice. A significant component of what an IP does is educate, and my Doctor of Health Sciences degree with a concentration in the fundamentals of education has elevated how I communicate infection prevention practices, guidelines, and standards to the vast array of adult learners I interact with daily. I am incredibly proud of my work as an IP, and taking the initiative to pursue a terminal degree has expanded my ability to do my job with expert-level education, training, knowledge, and confidence.

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