When Ana Gervassi went into panic mode forty-five minutes before the General Examinations for her doctoral degree, there was only one thing she could think to do. She went to the office of her faculty mentor, Lee Ann Campbell, a professor of global health and the director of the Interdisciplinary Pathobiology Program at the University of Washington.

“She just has this way of calming people down. Her availability and positivity helped me get through that moment, and then I went into my general exam feeling really strong,” recalls Gervassi, who earned her PhD in pathobiology in 2004 and is now a principle scientist of clinical immunology at Calviri, a medical startup dedicated to fighting cancer.

Thanks to this special combination of empathy, honesty, kindness, and problem-solving, Lee Ann Campbell is this year’s recipient of the Marsha L. Landolt Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award.

Sponsored by the University of Washington Graduate School, with assistance from the President’s Office, the award recognizes outstanding mentoring of graduate students by faculty. A single award, accompanied by $5,000 in discretionary funds that may be used to support the awardee’s scholarly activities, is presented at the annual UW Awards of Excellence Ceremony.

“Mentoring graduate students as they traverse the Pathobiology program is one of the most important things that I do because it's ensuring that we're going to have scientific leaders to address global health issues,” says Campbell. “If someone is having an issue that they need to talk about then I need to be there. Period.”

Campbell says mentorship often involves helping students to manage stress and normalize the ups and downs inherent to the doctoral experience. For example, a common issue Campbell sees is when students start doing their laboratory-based research and believe there will be discoveries all along.

“A lot of the time, in spite of all good intentions and thought, experiments don't work. But I always say to everyone to persevere, because when it starts working it's very euphoric,” says Campbell.

Campbell is no stranger to the rewards of perseverance. Her career with the UW began in 1985 when she joined the Department of Pathobiology as an assistant professor and researcher focused on the elucidation of molecular mechanisms of chlamydial pathogenesis. Since then, she has published more than 145 scholarly papers, served on several National Institutes of Health study sections, and served as president of the Chlamydia Basic Research Society. She is currently a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a member of the Pathogens Editorial Board.

In 1996, she became the director of the Pathobiology graduate program, guiding the program from its inception in the Department of Pathobiology, through 11 years as an interdisciplinary program after its home department was dissolved in 2006, to its eventual integration into the Department of Global Health in 2017. Dr. Judy Wasserheit, chair of the Department of Global Health, credits the survival and development of the program through all these changes to Campbell’s expert guidance.

“The success and endurance of the Pathobiology program is a direct result of Dr. Campbell’s dedication to academic excellence and the mentorship of talented students with a passion for controlling or mitigating diseases of public health importance. Her patience, attentiveness, and dedication are truly a model for all of us working in graduate education,” Wasserheit wrote in her nomination letter.

During Campbell’s twenty-five-years of leadership, the Pathobiology program has graduated more than 125 PhD trainees, and Campbell has personally mentored over 80 students, from high school students to post‐doctoral trainees, as well as junior faculty, with a special emphasis on supporting trainees from diverse and underserved backgrounds.  

One such former trainee is Rhea Coler, who graduated from the pathobiology program in 1998 and is now an affiliate professor of global health at UW. As a student, Coler sought out women mentors in science who represented what she hoped to become one day – a researcher running her own lab. She recalls how Campbell made herself available from day one, when she went out of her way to re-introduce herself to Coler at a new student welcome event.  

“She mentioned details that indicated that she'd read my resume and application. Reminding herself of who I was and what my background was is a way of showing someone that you care about them. From the get-go, it builds trust,” says Coler.

Campbell served on Coler’s PhD committee. Like Gervassi, Coler says she was comforted by knowing that Campbell was part of her support system as she completed her intensive studies. And that support has lasted well beyond graduation.

Coler says that five years ago, when she became a faculty member in the Pathobiology program, Campbell went around bragging to everyone that she had once been a star student of the program. “It was almost like a parent boasting about the successes of their children,” Coler says.

Now that both Coler and Gervassi are mentors themselves, they try to incorporate things they’ve learned from Campbell into their interactions with students. For Coler, this means instilling confidence in her mentees and empowering them to make decisions on their own. For Gervassi, this means being calm and taking into consideration the unique background, experiences, and objectives of each student.   

“Many mentors don't take the time to listen. What Lee Ann has taught me the most is to be able to listen and then integrate all of that into the equation of that student’s future,” says Gervassi.

As for Campbell’s own future, she says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought home the importance of having scientists trained in the way the Pathobiology program trains students, and that she hopes the program continues to prepare the next generation of outstanding scientists. 

“One of the greatest joys that I have is watching when students come in and may not have a lot of scientific maturity and then they grow and become very successful in their chosen careers. Every time a student graduates with their degree from our program it is a very proud moment,” says Campbell.

By Amy Goldstein