Peace Corps Science Teacher, Village Nurse, and Everything In-Between: Columbia Nursing’s Faculty Profile of Ana Kelly

October 12, 2017

Teaching began for Ana Kelly, PhD, assistant professor, directly after she graduated college with a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology. She joined the Peace Corps as a secondary education science volunteer, and found herself spending the next two years in a remote African village teaching biological sciences to high school students in Namibia. She says being a science teacher in a place with limited resources meant she was sometimes called upon to step-in and fill the void of school nurse, despite a lack of any formal training.

This early foray into nursing unearthed a passion in Kelly that led her to move from teaching to nursing, and when she returned to the United States, she began an accelerated nursing program at Michigan State University. She received her PhD in nursing, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University School of Nursing under Elaine Larson, PhD, associate dean for research.

Now an Assistant Professor at Columbia Nursing, Kelly says she feels fortunate to be able to combine her passions for nursing, teaching, and research on a daily basis.

How did you end up in the field of nursing?

While I was teaching in the Peace Corps after college, I often had to play the role of nurse at the school. Even though I had no health background at that point--because I was a science teacher--my students would come to me with health questions. I also partnered with the nurse in the village, and just seeing the impact of her role, everything she did, I became very inspired to formally pursue nursing.

One sort of had to step up and do whatever was required in that village setting. During that experience, I really got to see how the power of nursing helps address most primary health care concerns.

You left Africa after two years, did you immediately know you wanted to get into nursing?

It took a little time. When I was in Namibia, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic in 2001 – 2003, before antiretroviral treatment was readily accessible. We went to a lot of funerals, which definitely sparked my interest in infectious disease and in finding ways to eradicate HIV.

When I came back to the United States, I decided I wanted to pursue nursing, and I entered an accelerated option program at Michigan State University.  

When did you start teaching here?

Even when I chose nursing, I always knew I wanted to continue teaching to some degree. After working as an intensive care nurse for a few years, I returned to academia to pursue my PhD with the intention of ultimately joining a nursing faculty so I could teach.

During my post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia Nursing, Elaine Larson, PhD, was a great mentor and saw my interest in teaching. She connected me with Sally Aboelela, PhD, assistant professor in the Masters Direct Entry program, who ultimately became my teaching mentor. It just so happened that Aboelela was going on maternity leave, so I was able to take over her pathophysiology course. That was in my second year here as a post-doc, and I loved doing it! It was challenging, but it went well and confirmed my decision to seek out a permanent teaching position. It was that opportunity that really opened the door for me here at Columbia Nursing.

What part of infectious disease interests you the most?

I’m very interested in anti-microbial resistance, and the work I did during my dissertation focused on patients in sub-Saharan Africa with drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB), often with HIV co-infection. I continue to work with that population today.

I have done a lot of training workshops in South Africa with nurses, trying to improve patient-centered care for persons with TB and HIV. I would say my biggest interest is improving care for patients with drug-resistant TB. It is a very challenging regimen as the medications are very toxic, and it takes up to two years to treat. My dissertation focused on the side effects patients were experiencing because they weren’t being accurately documented by clinicians.

I tailored my interest more locally when I came to Columbia Nursing. I still focused on drug-resistant infections, but I worked with Dr. Larson, using her healthcare-associated infection database to look at drug resistance among pathogens that we see more regularly in New York. We’ve worked on a couple of analyses with the data.

What is it about teaching that resonates so much with you?

Whatever kind of work you do, you either find it laborious or you get lost in the joy of it. Teaching was always a natural fit for me. I find the lesson planning fun, I love engaging with students, I just get a lot of energy from it.