Member Q&A: Dr Shalika Shakir

Dr Salika Shakir
© Dr Salika Shakir

What was your current job title?

I am a Medical Director at a National Reference Laboratory. I am also an assistant professor in the department of Clinical Pathology.

What organisation do you work for?

I work for the Associated Regional and University Pathologists (ARUP), located in Salt Lake City, UT. The ARUP is affiliated with the University of Utah.

What qualifications did you need to pursue a career in your field?

I have a PhD in Microbiology and I have done a selection of fellowships in Research, specifically in Microbiology. For my PhD, I completed a dissertation at the University of Oklahoma where the research based around a very specific protein kinase and phosphatase pair in this Bacillus anthracis and at that time we were trying to find ways that we could target the growth of this bacterium, which could potentially be used as therapeutics further down the line. Once I finished my PhD I did a post-doctoral research fellowship in paediatric infectious diseases, on Escherichia coli (E. coli) that causes meningitis and bacteraemia in new-borns. In addition to my PhD, I completed a two year fellowship in Clinical Microbiology. I am currently board certified by the American Board of Medical Microbiology. As part of the training for the board qualification at the University of Utah, I had the opportunity to learn from amazing people  and trained on how to become a Clinical Microbiologist, not just learn about the bugs and diseases but also how to run a laboratory.

Have there been any discoveries in Clinical Microbiology that inspired you?

I have been in interested in the Clinical Microbiology field ever since I was in high school! There have been so many discoveries way before my time that I find fascinating. One historical example is Sir Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. The discovery of penicillin was more of an observation than an accidental discovery and it changed the course of medicine as we see it. Penicillin is one of the most used drugs and now there are different derivatives of it, which led to the development of new antibiotics and new therapeutics for infectious diseases. That is really what drew me into the field of Microbiology and even now the field is everchanging and constantly evolving.. I mainly focus on molecular diagnostics and that field has changed so much in the last 20 years. There are newer diagnostic tests that use shorter times to detect pathogen(s) in a patient sample. we used to have tests that took hours and now they take minutes. If nothing else, this pandemic has really shown the important role of a Clinical Microbiology lab and what we can do for the community. . I think it would have been challenging to test thousands of people a day had it not been for the technology we have today

Tell us more about what your work involves?

I oversee the sexually transmitted infections disease laboratory and I also do a portion of women’s health testing where my job is to make sure we have appropriate tests to identify the organisms that cause infectious diseases. My job is to recommend what type of samples to collect and how to collect them for that test, as well as making sure that there is effective quality control in place and effective and accurate reporting of the results. I help interpret those results and communicate and with providers and clinicians. The work I do is multidisciplinary in that I work with our laboratory staff, physicians, and  public health organisations.. Another big requirement of my job is to ensure that I bring new tests in the laboratory that are cost effective and provide patient results in a short amount of time, in the hope that physicians can act on those results and treat the patients effectively. Introducing shorter testing times not only helps the patient but also helps the laboratory to improve their workflow. In addition to laboratory work, I teach fellows and residents on various topics in Clinical Microbiology...

What skills do you think are important to do your job?

I think one of the main skills to possess is perseverance and being able to push through difficult situations. It is important to be a team player by sharing ideas and knowledge, whilst creatively finding solutions when faced with obstacles. I think another skill that is fundamental in my field is having the desire to learn and adapt continuously, improving yourself and teaching those around you. Amongst other skills, being organised is an important skill that you can learn and acquire over time

Tell us about some of your professional challenges and how you managed to overcome them?

I have a couple of examples that all came out as being productive in the end. One example that comes to mind after finishing my PhD, I thought that I was going to be a researcher – I was not quite sure of my path to Clinical Microbiology. It was a struggle because there were not that many funding opportunities and I could not find a laboratory or a project that I could continue pursuing. Eventually I did find a laboratory for my postdoctoral fellowship in paediatric infectious disease and the colleagues I worked with were really supportive; they helped me in realising that I wanted to do more than research and really be out there in the Clinical Microbiology field. Many people get their PhDs and they do not know what to do afterwards and that is definitely where I struggled a bit. During that period, I didn’t realise that there were so many different career paths you can choose after getting a PhD and I think back in 2010 it wasn’t very obvious, rather it was a case of either becoming a professor at the university and have a research lab or you work for the industry. But then I learned about job opportunities in the Clinical Microbiology field and I was totally captivated by it. I shadowed a clinical laboratory director and worked hard to get experience in a clinical laboratory before my fellowship and board certification. I would say that I overcame all these struggles – of not knowing what to do and feeling downhearted – by using my skills and learning opportunities as the next steps and finding  a place in the field I am passionate about.

What did you like most/least about your work?

I think what I like the most, and the reason I am here, is that I want to be able to offer the best tests for the best patient care. There have been a lot of personal reasons that go into it as well, for example, when I had been sick as a child , I remember my successful treatment was all down to the correct and prompt diagnosis from the clinical pathology and microbiology professionals. At that very young age I learned about the role the pathologist played in identifying the bacterial infection I had, and I was thinking that this is how I want to give back by doing the best for the healthcare industry. In terms of what I like the least, I think what bothered me most was a time during the pandemic when we were running low on testing supplies – that was a big challenge for us to face as a laboratory but thankfully that lasted a short time and we were able to come up with new solutions and work around the problems. We are still faced with challenges but we are definitely more positive about it now !

Are there any advances in your area of expertise that you are looking forward to see?

I am hoping that we see newer antibiotic therapeutics that help combat  this global emergence of multidrug resistant organisms. It would be good to have pharmaceutical companies continue to create new therapeutics.. Also, we are constantly looking forward implementing new ways to diagnose infections with tests that are accurate and have a better time to result.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you started your career?

That it is ok to not know the answer and not to be disheartened because that is how we learn. There are times when a test doesn’t work the way you expected it to work or there is a failure in the procedure. It is important not to take it personally, rather take it as a learning opportunity and focus on the areas we can improve.. This applies to any field that you are in, not just the field of clinical microbiology:. If you are not sure what to do then be comfortable in asking someone for help because these are decisions that impact patient care.

If you did not pursue a career in your research area, what would you see yourself doing instead?

I don’t know actually! I have always wanted to go to culinary school because I love baking, but I think I would stick to my roots and probably teach Biology in high school since that is what inspired me to do what I am doing.