Georgia CTSA MSCR Graduates on Front Line of COVID-19 Battle

"In a situation like this where everything is so new, scientific communication and the ability to interpret it becomes a critical issue. We're talking about something that people, up until three months ago, have never dealt with," says Dr. Jeffrey Collins. 

Jeffrey Collins, MD, MSc, Assistant Professor, and Russell Kempker, MD, MSc, Associate Professor, Emory University School of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, NIH-funded physician-scientists, and Georgia Clinical & Translational Science Alliance (Georgia CTSA) Master in Science in Clinical Research (MSCR) graduates, are on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. Collins and Kempker were both on Infectious Diseases clinical service at Grady Hospital when the SARS-CoV2 virus came to Atlanta and diagnosed the first patients seen at Grady with COVID-19.

“The situation evolved rapidly in terms of the number of people we were evaluating in the beginning,” Collins continues. “Two weeks later, there was an exponential growth in the number of people that needed to be considered and have lab testing.”

Kempker adds, “It was an opportune, surreal time to be in the hospital working during those two weeks. We were on service when we had the first case in northern Atlanta, and we knew something was coming, but I don’t think we really had a sense of what that would mean for us. In the beginning, it started out as a slow trickle with a few persons under investigation for coronavirus, and then after we diagnosed the first case at Grady Memorial Hospital the floodgates opened and every day we started receiving more and more persons under investigation coming through the ER. It was incredible working in the hospital in the midst of an outbreak. There were many different things coming at us. As an infectious disease doctor, I needed to understand substantial amounts of new information about the virus and illness, interpret it, and share my knowledge with nurses, techs, and radiologists in the hospital.”

Reflecting on how Georgia CTSA’s MSCR program has been helpful in their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, Dr. Collins states, “We were fortunate to be able to learn from our mentors’ experience, so we can do it clinically in terms of being able to follow, interpret, and share all of the scientific epidemiologic studies that are being conducted right now and to disseminate the things that are known from other groups. We are disseminating the knowledge as rapidly as possible and recommend others read the studies, interpret, and adapt to their own clinical practice.”

Dr. Kemper agrees, “This is a perfect scenario of clinical practice and public health merging together. Principles for both are needed and are important to deal effectively with a situation like this - a new virus, a new infection. The epidemiology principles we learned in MSCR are directly applicable - thinking about disease transmission, how something spreads, how can we protect our healthcare workers, and what kind of reporting do we need to be doing? Public health messaging of the information that’s going out to the healthcare system is also extremely important. Being an infectious disease doctor, our role includes not only reassuring people about the illness in the clinical presentation, but also how to be safe when you leave the hospital, how to protect your loved ones, and when you can go back to work. There’s all this information people want to know and are anxious about, so the public health messaging is a powerful tool to help keep people reassured.”

The handling of COVID-19 has been a teamwork effort as Kempker notes, “What’s been impressive, even enlightening to me, is through the chaos there’s been the camaraderie of different people coming together and problem-solving on the go. There’s compassion from numerous healthcare workers who are volunteering their time and doing whatever they can. We have several infectious disease physicians who are volunteering in some role to help out, whether it be covering the COVID pager, doing the swab collection, or PPE training. It’s been a huge team coming together, which is needed to make this a sustainable effort.”

Training others how to conduct tests for COVID-19 has been vital. “Russell set the tone when he did several tests himself and showed other people how to do it,” Dr. Collins says. “Now there are several types of providers doing the testing and the swabs.”

Georgia CTSA has also played a large role in helping healthcare workers receive this training. Dr. Kempker states, “Another area the Georgia CTSA helped prepare us in this fight against COVID-19 was the mentorship and leadership training that we received and still continue to enhance every year. When these situations occur, you realize one of the most important things is leadership on many different levels, whether it’s the CEO of the hospital or leadership of a small training team. Georgia CTSA emphasizes leadership training, and it’s crucial because you have many people who are willing to help. We’re receiving emails every day from medical students, physicians, and people who want to help in some way. Having the leadership in place to fully utilize all these people, and to organize and distribute these resources is of huge value in effectively dealing with this coronavirus illness.”

Dr. Collins concurs, “The tools you take away from these Georgia CTSA research education programs equally allow you to do that in a unique way. These tools are incredibly helpful. Being a leader and educator is critical. This situation has required significant expertise and leadership in a short period of time on a variety of issues. The toolbox you gain from the Georgia CTSA MSCR program positions you to ride through these challenges.”

The Emory Master of Science in Clinical Research (MSCR) degree program, in the Laney Graduate School at Emory University, provides innovative didactic and mentored research training to those interested in pursuing a career in clinical and/or translational research. The MSCR degree is designed for predoctoral, postdoctoral trainees, and junior faculty from Emory, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia Tech and UGA.

The Georgia CTSA is a statewide partnership between Emory, MSM, Georgia Tech, and UGA and is one of over 60 in a national consortium striving to improve the way biomedical research is conducted across the country. The consortium, funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) and the National Institutes of Health's Clinical and Translational Science Awards, shares a common vision to translate laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients, engage communities in clinical research efforts, and train the next generation of clinical investigators. For more information, visit