There’s one sure way to get Karissa Culbreath to do something: Tell her she can’t.
“I am a highly competitive person and really all you have to do … is tell me that I can’t and then — ‘OK. Let’s go. Watch me,'” says Culbreath, medical director of infectious disease at TriCore Reference Laboratories.
She’s also a licensed minister, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico, a children’s book author, a mother of two and, most recently, a Rio Rancho city councilor.
As a microbiologist and immunologist, Culbreath says the coronavirus pandemic for her and her colleagues has been “our Super Bowl.”
“We’ve been training for this our whole lives, right?” she says. “It’s been this moment of just great challenge, both personally and professionally. But I do feel like things and life have prepared me for this moment, and it’s especially fulfilling because I was born and raised in New Mexico, and I know I’m serving the community I love.”
Culbreath says it was during a trip to Malawi for post-graduate work when she found her true purpose as a microbiologist.
“In rural Malawi, they suffer for so long, and then by the time they can get to a place where they seek care, it can be too late,” she says. “What I realized was I really am passionate about serving and about doing that in underserved communities. And that really had a big impact on me and how I do my work now.”
Did you always want to be a microbiologist?
“I was that strange child that got a microscope and dissection kit for Christmas. I was reading ‘The Hot Zone’ (by Richard Preston) when I was in middle school and high school, so this idea and fascination behind microbes, it’s just in me. People ask me, ‘How did you get interested?’ I don’t know. I just came out like this.”
When you were growing up, was it unusual for a girl to be so interested in science?
“I am just so blessed to be able to have parents who pushed and encouraged. I had such a supportive community around me that I didn’t feel the kind of pressure of being a girl in science and being a Black woman in science until later, honestly. The community around me was just so amazing. I remember being a young girl and going to church and taking my report card to all of the different people who were asking to see it. Got a quarter for every A. I think the other thing that was important was that I went to a historically Black university — Fisk University. I was so cultivated and enriched by being in the space where there was no question about capability of excellence and opportunities. While I thought I was already capable, it just made it bigger. It made the world wider to me. It wasn’t until later in my career that I started to experience some of these other things.”
I think the first time that it was noticeable was definitely in grad school where, just as a new grad student in the hallways — ‘Are you a lab tech? Are you a secretary?’ But those formative experiences built up this resilience that any question wasn’t a question of me, it was more of a question of them. Like what’s wrong with you?”
Is there anything surprising to you in the way the pandemic has played out?
“Surprising is a difficult word. I don’t think it’s hugely surprising. I think there’s been many successes here in the U.S., but it’s clear there’s been a lot of missteps. But mostly I’m really proud of the way the scientific community has risen to the challenge. And the way that the scientific community is being highlighted and spotlighted. That there’s a Dr. Fauci action figure. … Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett, a Black woman involved in the development of the vaccine. These names as they start to become household names now, I think it creates a space and opportunity where kids get a Fauci doll for Christmas, along with their poster of LeBron James.”
What’s on your bucket list?
“For sure, my travel bucket list is definitely long, but I want to take my children and my husband back to Africa. I would love to take them to Malawi. They know how important that space was for me. For accomplishments, I want to be able to leave a legacy. I want to be able to live authentically and just be true to myself and do the things that are valuable and leave an impact on others. And so that’s kind of like the guiding force of the accomplishment side. And then I just want to have fun. I’m up for an adventure. Would I jump out of an airplane? Probably. Would I climb to the top of a waterfall? Sure. It’s less like a bucket list of things I want to do. More like somebody suggest something. Let’s do it.”
What’s an example of an adventure you’ve had?
“My husband and I have had a little running pact for a couple of years that we would give each other gifts that required a liability waiver. One year, he surprised me with a hang gliding trip. It was literally a surprise up until the second I got strapped in. He had me blindfolded. It was amazing. Absolutely amazing.”
What’s a splurge for you?
“Give me a spa day, give me a massage, give me a hot tub or a hot springs, and I’m as happy as can be. And especially if I’ve got some girlfriends there, then all the better. Girls day, girls trip, let’s go.”
Do you have any quirks?
“I’m afraid of earthworms. If there’s an earthworm, I’m crying. Like the same way people are afraid of spiders or snakes, you put an earthworm in my path, and I will jump on tables to avoid it.”
What inspires you?
“The quote by St. Catherine of Siena: ‘Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.’ And I think that has been my focus for these past couple of years — trying to figure out what is that spark. Because I think we all have a spark inside of us and when we tap into that, then that’s how we can set the world on fire and live out our passions.”
THE BASICS: Karissa (McCall) Culbreath, 39, born in Albuquerque; married, two children, a 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son; bachelor’s degree, Fisk University, 2003; Ph.D., microbiology and immunology, Vanderbilt University, 2008.
POSITIONS: Medical director, Infectious Disease Division chief, TriCore Reference Laboratories; has worked at Tricore since 2010; associate professor, University of New Mexico School of Medicine; appointed Rio Rancho city councilor since December 2020.
OTHER: Board member, Explora and Covenant Community Development Foundation; author of “Daddy’s Little Girl,” 2016.