Dr. Karissa Culbreath: “We have been reminded of the simple things”

Don’t spread misinformation — another day, another COVID-19 conspiracy theory. The wild and unfounded speculations about the virus are not helpful to anyone, especially those experiencing anxiety. Don’t share information unless it is from a trusted source. If you are unsure about the validity of the information, don’t share it! As a part of my series about the […]

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Don’t spread misinformation — another day, another COVID-19 conspiracy theory. The wild and unfounded speculations about the virus are not helpful to anyone, especially those experiencing anxiety. Don’t share information unless it is from a trusted source. If you are unsure about the validity of the information, don’t share it!

As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Karissa Culbreath.

Karissa Culbreath is a speaker, author and scientist. She is the Medical Director for Infectious Disease Diagnostics at TriCore Reference Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM. She is a children’s book author with an award winning first book, Daddy’s Little girl.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I am a clinical microbiologist which means that I focus on diagnosis of infectious diseases and informing clinicians on options for diagnosis and treatment. I attended an HBCU, Fisk University in Nashville, TN which was a pivotal experience in my life. I am so grateful for my experience at Fisk including the amazing educational and resource experience as well as the cultural impact on my life. After I completed by Bachelor’s degree at Fisk, I attended Vanderbilt University for my PhD in Microbiology and Immunology and then later attended University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my postdoctoral training in Medical and Public Health Microbiology. While at UNC, I worked for two months in Malawi to develop laboratory diagnostic testing capacity. It was while doing this work in Malwai that I realized my passion was for serving underserved communities and ensuring access to critically needed diagnostic testing. This passion led me back to my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico to work as the Medical Director of Infectious Disease Diagnostics. New Mexico is one of the poorest states with regions having extreme poverty and lack of access to healthcare and diagnostics.

Little did I know that my passion for serving underserved communities in infectious disease diagnostics would be so important. With COVID-19, we have been working in overdrive in testing. Because of the amazing work of my team, we have been able to help ensure that New Mexico is in the top 10 states for COVID-19 testing per capita and we continue to serve some of the most at risk and rural counties in the state.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

While I was in my fellowship, I read a powerful book called Unbowed: A Memoir, by Nobel Prize winner Wanagari Maathai. Her passion for serving her community through fierce opposition helped me to focus on how to have a career that would keep service to the community at the forefront.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I’ll give 3 things that focus on our fears and anxiety and 2 that focus on the science.

  1. Focus on taking moments of rest — I really believe that every person needs to take time to reflect and rest their mind, body and soul from the tireless news cycle and feelings of chaos. Early in the pandemic while we were trying to build our testing, I experienced a panic attack. I knew then that I needed to create space for myself to step away from everything for a few minutes each day, to breathe, pray and mediate.
  2. Gratitude Matters — Complaining is easy, finding fault is easy. Gratitude takes effort. Even in the most difficult situation some of us have ever experienced, there is still at least one thing to be grateful for every day. Aligning with gratitude gives me hope because it reminds me that there is still good in the world around me, in others and in myself.
  3. We have been reminded of the simple things — Last week, my daughter said, “Mommy before we would always have something to do or somewhere to go. Since we can’tdo that, I just go outside and play.” It sounds a lot like my childhood. There were not so many devices, activities and clubs, so we went outside to explore and play. I am hopeful that we come out of this more aware of the many activities that may have unnecessarily filled our time and focus on ways to reconnect with family, with nature and with ourselves.
  4. Science is the great equalizer — I am amazed by the amazing scientists and thought leaders that are working on this pandemic. I believe in the power of science and am sure that the most brilliant minds are working around the clock to develop treatments and a vaccine. I am also hopeful that this crisis is inspiring a new generation of scientists and epidemiologists who will tackle the next crisis we experience.
  5. The virus is not invincible — I know that it seems right now that the virus is the super villain that has no weaknesses. Simple things like handwashing, hand sanitizer and general cleaning can effectively destroy the virus. It is likely that effective treatments will continue to emerge and there will be a safe and effective vaccine. In the meantime, we can all do things like continue to practice levels of social distancing, eat healthy, get adequate sleep and reduce stress to do our part to stop the virus.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

  1. Find a Therapist — we are experiencing collective anxiety but many of us already had feelings of anxiousness before COVID-19. For the past two years I have been seeing a therapist regularly to gain tools to deal with the anxiety I had juggling being a wife, mother, professional, community member and perfectionist. Those tools have helped me to find peace during this time. If you don’t have a therapist, it’s never too late to get one.
  2. Don’t spread misinformation — another day, another COVID-19 conspiracy theory. The wild and unfounded speculations about the virus are not helpful to anyone, especially those experiencing anxiety. Don’t share information unless it is from a trusted source. If you are unsure about the validity of the information, don’t share it!
  3. Trust the process — this is real life, not a movie. Science takes time. There will not be a cure or vaccine overnight. The time that it takes to develop the vaccine is to ensure that it is safe and effective. Although I am not a scientist that develops vaccines, I understand how the process works. I have developed a personal mantra for times when I get anxious about treatments or vaccines. “May there be a treatment for those who are sick. May there be a vaccine for those who are still well. Let them be safe, let them be effective and let them come quickly.” That small mantra settles my anxiety and I hope that it sends some good vibes to those who are working so hard to develop the therapeutics we desperately need.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

For the most up to date information on the virus, I recommend the CDC website. There is so much misinformation being spread on social media. Stay focused on reputable sources. This is new virus, so some information and recommendations may change, but trust that the CDC is providing the best information available at the moment to protect the community from the virus. To deal with my personal anxiety and stress, I started using the Headspace App as a tool to bring mindfulness into my daily practice. I also use the Daily Prayer App which has in-app notification for daily pauses for prayer and reflection.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

My life mantra has been “Leave no doubt.” As a black woman in science, I have been constantly underestimated, doubted and silenced. When I graduate school, I was mistaken for the cleaning crew and a secretary. Many times, my abilities, my competence and my mere presence in the room has been questioned. I spent many years filled with anxiety as I would enter meetings and presentations feeling like I had something to prove. I finally recognized that it wasn’t my job to fix people’s perceptions of me when I walk in the door. But when I leave, I have determined to “leave no doubt” that my presence is not only valuable, but necessary. This mantra has served me well and allowed me to find peace in stressful situations.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am passionate about STEM education for children of color. I believe that this pandemic has demonstrated the need for diverse voices and ideas. Children are naturally curious, and science is all about exploring our curiosity. If we inspire and encourage that curiosity children will remain interested and focused on the sciences. I hope that children have recognized that being a scientist is a superpower in the fight against this virus and I hope we have some budding super heroes ready to put on their capes.

What is the best way for our readers to follow you online?

Follow me on Twitter @KarissaPhD

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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