International Women’s Day: A day in the life of… Bobbi Pritt

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Dr. Bobbi Pritt is a pathologist and microbiologist who specializes in the laboratory diagnosis of human parasitic infections and vector-borne diseases. She works at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (MN, USA) where she directs the Clinical Parasitology laboratory and co-directs the vector-borne diseases laboratory services.

She is also an educator, and spends a lot of time teaching medical students, pathology residents, clinical microbiology fellows and infectious disease fellows about clinical microbiology. Dr. Pritt’s research focuses on the laboratory detection of parasites and vector-borne diseases. Most recently, she collaborated with scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; GA, USA), state health departments and state universities to describe and characterized two new human pathogens in the United States. The results of her work have been published in The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine and other major journals in the field.

My alarm goes off…

During the week, my routine is pretty no-nonsense. I get up around 6 am and am ready to go in about 30–45 minutes. I live close to work and will walk whenever the weather is nice (which is about half the year in Minnesota); otherwise I share a ride to work with my husband and arrive within 7 minutes of leaving my front door. Once I get to work, I grab a cup of coffee and a granola bar and get to work.

(On the weekend, I have a very different ritual. I sleep in and then lounge around with my husband and cats in front of the fire place with a cup of coffee until I can get myself motivated enough to get ready for the day!)

I’m responsible for…

I am the medical director for the clinical parasitology laboratory at Mayo Clinic – a very busy and high volume laboratory that performs testing for detection of parasites and vector-borne pathogens from a variety of human specimens. Our laboratory is part of Mayo Medical Laboratories, an international reference laboratory, and we receive specimens from patients living across the United States – and other parts of the world as well! Therefore, we can see a whole range of infectious diseases, including those that are not usually found in the US. For example, my laboratory sees a large number of cases of malaria – a potentially-deadly disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes in parts of Africa, Asia, and other tropical regions of the world.

While I am not the one performing the actual testing, I am responsible for the quality and accuracy of all of the results that are produced in the laboratory. I make the decisions on the types of testing that we perform, and I work closely with other physicians to ensure that the correct tests are ordered for each patient and that the results are accurate, timely and relevant.

I also am responsible for teaching the science of clinical microbiology to a variety of learners, including medical laboratory science students, medical students, pathology residents, infectious disease fellows and clinical microbiology fellows. These learners are our laboratorians and physicians of the future and I want to ensure that they possess the necessary knowledge and skills to provide the best care possible for our patients. I am also responsible for conducting research in clinical microbiology and developing new tests for detection of human infectious diseases. I am very blessed to work as part of a team with talented and dedicated scientists and administrators in all of these endeavours.

Finally, as a pathologist trained in both anatomic and clinical pathology, I review tissue biopsies from patients who are suspected of having an infectious disease. I am responsible for recognizing the signs of infection in the tissue sections and also for identifying any type of infectious organism that might be present. My laboratory is one of the few in the country that has specific expertise in the diagnosis of infectious diseases using formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue specimens, and therefore we have a very busy practice.

Outside of my workplace, I represent Mayo Clinic by serving on a number of professional committees and working groups. I am currently the Chair of the Microbiology Resource Committee for the College of American Pathologists, and have served on several working groups at the CDC to help create guidelines and define best practices. I also serve on the editorial board for two of our major clinical microbiology journals and am responsible for reviewing the research of fellow scientists who want to publish in these journals.

My typical day…

My typical day varies tremendously! This is one of the things I love about my job. Sometimes I am teaching, while other times I am working on research and development projects, going into the laboratory to help troubleshoot problems, speaking to clinicians about patients who are potentially infected with parasites or vector-borne pathogens, participating in educational conferences, attending meetings to discuss laboratory quality initiatives and keeping up-to-date on the science in my field.

I travel quite a bit for my job, and this is something I really enjoy. Not only do I travel to attend educational conferences for my own intellectual advancement, but I also am usually involved in the teaching of others. For example, I typically deliver more than 20 lectures and workshops to learners outside of Mayo Clinic at regional, national and international conferences. This year I will be travelling around the United States, as well as to Italy, Jordan, and Belize to provide lectures and workshops to colleagues interested in pathology and clinical microbiology.

The strangest thing that has happened…

Lots of strange and exciting things happen in my job! Given that my laboratory is responsible for the diagnosis of parasitic infections, we receive all sorts of specimens from every part of the body imaginable. Sometimes parasites are present in the specimens, but sometimes there are only things present which resemble parasites. For example, it is not uncommon for us to receive food material that was shed in the stool of a patient and mistaken as a parasite – for example, things like slices of onion, tomato peel, pieces of banana, bean sprouts, and chewing gum are commonly submitted.

We also receive all sorts of arthropods (e.g. ticks, mites and insects) for identification. Sometimes they are human ectoparasites associated with diseases, while other times they are household insects such as beetles and free-living fly larvae. It is our job to sort out the ones that cause disease from those that don’t. It’s not uncommon to have moving things in my laboratory!

Ticks, for example, are often still alive when they arrive in the lab, and we have to try to keep them contained so that we can identify them. One time we received a jar of living fleas and they were jumping all over the place. We had to be careful not to accidentally let them loose in the lab!

The best part of my job…

The best part of my job is working with all of my talented and dedicated colleagues to provide the best possible care to our patients. I also really enjoy teaching and undertaking research to expand our knowledge of clinical microbiology.

The worst part of my job…

Trying to juggle all of the things I want to do since there are always more things than I have time for.

After work…

I tend to bring a lot of my work home with me, since I really enjoy what I do and consider writing and research to be very satisfying leisure activities. However, I will often put a more creative spin on the work I do at home. For example, I am currently working on a parasite coloring book, and also have some ‘arts and crafts’ projects where I am embedding ticks in resin so that they can serve as long-lasting teaching displays.

I always wanted to be…

An artist. However, I realized that I also enjoyed math and science and thought I would be bored just doing fine or graphic arts. Luckily my job in medicine gives me the best of both worlds – a scientific job where I can make a difference in the lives of others, while applying my artistic and creative skills to research and education.

Who is your female role model/hero/inspirational woman?

My mother, who is the most amazingly creative, loving, hardworking, industrious and artistic woman I know.

You might also like to take a look at a Day in the Life of… Sharon Lewin, an infectious diseases physician, basic scientist and the inaugural director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity…
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