Mentoring the future of
global health

25 years leading the Pathobiology
Ph.D. program has made Dr. Lee Ann
Campbell a trusted mentor to the next
generation of global health leaders.

Ana Gervassi had two dreams: to become a U.S. resident and attend graduate school. But in a terrifying moment, she thought she would have to pick between the two.

Gervassi had just been accepted into the UW Pathobiology Ph.D. program when she found out her green card application had been denied. Did she stay at her current job to restart the green card application process and forfeit her shot at graduate school?

Gervassi went to talk to the program director of the Pathobiology doctoral program, Professor Lee Ann Campbell. Her feelings of despair were met with optimism from Campbell, who told Gervassi that she was going to try to figure out a solution.

The process included many steps for them: applying for a waiver from first year rotations so Gervassi could stay at her company, getting permission for Gervassi to be co-mentored by someone at her company, and allowing that co-mentor at her company to become a faculty member at the university.

But Campbell doesn’t get intimidated easily. She was determined to support Gervassi because of an important ethos she’s had about the Pathobiology program Campbell’s now run for 25 years:

“It’s our responsibility to mentor future scientific leaders,” Campbell said. “If the student has a challenge, then I view it as a challenge that our program has. How are we going to address it?”

Today, Gervassi has earned both her doctorate and her U.S. citizenship, which she says is thanks to Campbell’s efforts.

“She went far and beyond her duties as a graduate program director to make it possible for me to pursue both dreams at the same time,” Gervassi said.

Campbell was awarded the Graduate School’s 2021 Marsha L. Landolt Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award for her years of mentorship and leadership to students across the Pathobiology program.

It’s difficult to count the number of mentees Campbell has had, because of her open door policy to support anyone, any time they need help. A common piece of advice senior graduate students share with new ones is, “Just talk to Lee Ann.”

Why? Recent Pathobiology Ph.D. graduate Blair Armistead says it best:

“To put it simply, she listens, and she acts.”

Creating community in Pathobiology

Before Andrew Gustin became a student in the Pathobiology doctoral program, he worked as a paramedic. He appreciated the command staff on his team, whose expertise and calming presence helped him handle the most intense of emergencies. After meeting Campbell, he came to view her in a similar way to the medics he worked with: the steadfast leader of the Pathobiology program.

“She treated us with a lot of respect and balanced having high expectations of us and making us feel like we belonged here,” Gustin said.

Creating this sense of belonging in the Pathobiology program was important for Campbell, especially during times when the program itself didn’t have a permanent home.

The program, which has graduated 127 doctorate students, was created in 1990 and housed within the department of Pathobiology. But when the department was dissolved in 2006, the program was moved on an interim basis to the Graduate School. It was finally relocated to its permanent home in the Department of Global Health in 2017.

Campbell at the Pathobiology Program retreat.

Many say the survival and success of the program is owed to Campbell’s steadfast presence at the helm.

Campbell said she could withstand the turbulence of those years because she knew the program was special. The interdisciplinary basic science program focused on host/pathogen interactions trains students to identify targets to prevent and cure diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored just how important Campbell’s mission was to develop the next generation of scientists who could rapidly develop diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

The program’s work is nationally recognized: Campbell has secured a highly competitive training grant from the National Institutes of Health for 22 years in a row, to support several students each year. The grant process is hundreds of pages long, and requires annual updates on how students are progressing.

Campbell is also a grounding presence for her students, as they battle failed experiments, confidence, and figuring out which path is best for them.

The morning of Gervassi’s graduate school general exams, she woke up, got ready to head to school, and then suddenly felt an overwhelming rush of panic, thinking about the exam. The only person she knew who could help her in that moment was Campbell.

Because Campbell has an open door policy, Gervassi ran straight to her office. For an hour before Gervassi’s exams were about to begin, Campbell reassured her, by expressing the confidence she had in Gervassi that she could succeed.

She is a fierce advocate for her mentees, and I cannot overstate how proud she makes me feel to be a member of the Pathobiology program.
Andrew GustinDoctoral student, Pathobiology

Gustin has also felt just how attentive Campbell is to all her students. At one point in his graduate school experience, Gustin found himself at a crossroads. While he didn’t think many people knew about the situation he was struggling with, Campbell noticed, and asked if she could help him. She made herself available for follow-up calls, emails and in-person conversations to support Gustin along the way.

“She is a fierce advocate for her mentees, and I cannot overstate how proud she makes me feel to be a member of the Pathobiology program — and how fortunate I am to be led by a mentor of Dr. Campbell’s mettle,” Gustin said.

The value of a micro view

Perhaps one of the reasons Campbell is so good at providing specific attention to students is her lifelong passion for noticing details at the micro level.

Campbell knew she wanted to be a microbiologist as early as the moment she held her first toy microscope.

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, in the small town of Altoona, Campbell found support in her passion for science from her family as well as in school. She remembers Mr. Yoder who visited the high school science labs in the area who noticed her enthusiasm for science, and encouraged her toward microbiology. She also had a female biology teacher — a rarity at the time — whom Campbell looked up to.

Campbell and colleagues at the International Chlamydia meeting with (from right to left) Dr. Priscilla Wyrick (retired, Quillen College of Medicine, East Tennessee State University, who was a trailblazer for women in Chlamydia research and a mentor to Campbell in her career); Campbell’s first postdoctoral trainee, Dr. Mirja Puolakkainen (University of Helsinki); Dr. Dorothy Patton (also at UW ); Dr. Charlotte Gaydos (Johns Hopkins School of Medicine), and Campbell.

Campbell went to school an hour away from home at the Pennsylvania State University, where she earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. While Campbell had supportive mentors, there were other areas where she felt lost: She didn’t know how to network at meetings, how to present research or how to write a manuscript.

That’s why Campbell gives her students opportunities to learn these skills. Campbell — whose field of expertise is chlamydia — helped organize the Chlamydia Basic Research Society, which gives young scientists like graduate students and postdoctoral fellows the opportunity to present their research on the national and international stage. This kind of networking is important because creating collaborative relationships between scientists can lead to funding opportunities for future research.

Even after her students graduate, Campbell’s mentorship is never far off. Armistead, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Seattle Children’s Research Institute — Center for Global Infectious Disease Research, said that Campbell still gives her opportunities to grow in her career, such as inviting her to give a lecture and write and grade an exam question for first-year students.

“Dr. Campbell cares about each of our interests, pursuits, wellbeing, and future; even if we are not working in her laboratory, she treats each of us as her mentee and potential future colleague,” Armistead said.

Diversity in global health

During Armistead’s first year of graduate school, she started to worry that her acceptance to the doctoral program had been a big mistake. Many of her classmates had robust lab experience while Armistead came from a career in community health. Campbell sensed Armistead’s self-doubt, and pulled her aside to share how important Armistead’s background in community health was for this Ph.D. program.

Armistead said those words of confidence in her first year fueled both her studies as well as grant applications, because she could emphasize her unique strengths in the program.

It’s our responsibility to mentor future scientific leaders,” Campbell said. “If the student has a challenge, then I view it as a challenge that our program has. How are we going to address it?
Lee Ann CampbellProfessor, Global Health

Creating a program that supports graduate students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives is critical to the work of global health, Campbell said. There’s no one answer or training that could fit every possible circumstance global health leaders will encounter in their careers, which is why each student brings something new and important to the classroom.

After a police incident on campus that left people feeling unsafe, Armistead said that Campbell provided opportunities for students to voice their concerns. Campbell provided time for Armistead and two other students to present on systemic racism in science and academia during the annual Pathobiology program retreat, even as some objected that the retreat should only be focused on science.

Campbell also ensured students from the program were represented on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for the Department of Global Health.

“I view our program as being dynamic,” Campbell said. “It has to be because science changes so rapidly. So to continually bring in new voices with different perspectives is very important.”

Mentorship: A two-way street for learning

Students and faculty may have different expectations for what good mentorship is. That’s why good communication is integral to healthy mentoring relationships, Campbell said.

If there’s something a student wants more guidance on, they should ask. And mentors don’t need to have the answers. They can direct students to other faculty or resources that might be better able to help them.

Campbell with her husband Dilip Worah at the Taj Mahal.

Mentorship is also about being able to support students through some of the toughest decisions, such as realizing they no longer want a career in the field they’re studying. Students might worry they are disappointing their friends, their families or their mentor by changing their minds.

“I always say I will support you in whatever you want to do, because only you know what’s best for you, and it’s OK if you don’t want to do basic research, because you’re always going to have that knowledge from what you learned here,” Campbell said.

When asked what she’s learned over several decades of mentorship, Campbell laughs.

“I learn every day,” she said. “That really is the answer: I just keep learning.”


Story by Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Published June 3, 2021