‘This Is Going to Impact the Entire World’: Nursing Alumna Joins COVID-19 Vaccine Trial Team

As a sub-investigator within phase one of a COVID-19 vaccine trial, LeighAnn Schmidt's responsibilities include reviewing medical records with research coordinators and monitoring patient outcomes.

By Jacqueline Mazarella

Earlier this year, LeighAnn Schmidt, MSN ’19, felt compelled to write to her former professor about what she experienced in a particular class. “I was so afraid of research and did not think I would ever have a change of heart,” Schmidt wrote. “Your course really changed all of that!”

What Schmidt learned from Kathleen Becker, clinical associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Department of Nursing, propelled her into a position as a sub-investigator for a COVID-19 vaccine trials in the United States. A direct result of her clinical placement, Schmidt is working on the trial with Peninsula Research Associates, the research arm of Palos Verdes Medical Group, a multi-specialty family practice in California, owned and run by Dr. Lawrence Sher, a board-certified allergist and immunologist.

Learn more about the online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program now.

The Road to Nurse Practitioner

Schmidt, a registered nurse since 2002, spent her career in emergency room patient care and case management. A few years ago, she realized that the changes in the health care process were pulling her away from interacting with patients.

“I was basically sitting at a computer for eight hours a day, making sure patients qualified for admission,” Schmidt said. “I’m relatively young, and I didn’t want to spend the next 20 years of my life doing that. That is not how I want to interact with patients.”

She made the decision to go back to school for her master of science in nursing (MSN) to become a family nurse practitioner. What drew her to the USC program was its nestling within social work. As a case manager in an emergency room, every day Schmidt’s “partner-in-crime” was a social worker. She got to see firsthand how that skillset helps patients and how important that is to their health care experience.

“At USC they really focus on the bio-pscyho-social,” Schmidt said. “They look at the entire person and every aspect of their life because it’s all important. It all impacts them. If someone is homeless and doesn’t have access to a refrigerator, it’s going to be difficult for me to prescribe them insulin to manage their diabetes.”

For Schmidt, having social work classes and spending time with social workers as the backbone of the program helped focus her ability to interact with patients and understand the aspects of their lives that would impact their health in the future.

Great Coalesce of Events

Becker’s course was Schmidt’s first exposure to research and it changed her perspective. It was the first time she realized the full scope of how she could potentially interact with patients and make a difference in their lives.

“And then it just so happened that where I ended up for clinical [placement] has a research facility,” Schmidt said. “It’s just how it worked out. And as I’ve discovered, now that I’m a part of it, it’s fascinating to see the development of new medications, and more importantly, it’s incredible to see the impact you can have on a patient’s life.”

In February of 2020, after passing her boards, Schmidt was hired by Palos Verdes Medical Group to work on oral immuno therapy (OIT) which helps desensitize patients with food allergies. The research for the OIT was performed in a clinical trial at the research arm of Dr. Sher’s practice.

“The really cool thing is we’re truly practicing fresh, hot off-the-presses evidence-based medicine,” Schmidt said. “That’s sort of how [Sher] likes to do things. We participate in research, we get the evidence to back up the practice and then we apply it in the clinical setting.”

Working on food allergies, particularly with children, Schmidt has been able to ease the fear of many parents. She explained that most parents of children with food allergies are afraid every day when their child leaves the house, fearing their child is going to accidentally be exposed to something life-threatening.

“Being able to take away that fear in some way, or minimize it so that they know that their child is safe, has been huge for me,” Schmidt said.

COVID-19 Vaccine Trial

When COVID-19 hit earlier in the year, the clinic stayed open. Schmidt and her co-workers have been able to provide medical care, drive-thru testing and advice.

When data began to show that those with antibodies could help others, the community in Palos Verdes jumped at the opportunity to be tested. “They wanted to be able to donate plasma,” Schmidt said. “They wanted to be a part of the helpers. They wanted to be a part of the solution.”

When the clinic began the COVID-19 vaccine trial, the community members, again, wanted to participate in a real and meaningful way to help.

Schmidt is working within phase one of a COVID-19 vaccine trial, which is focused on safety. As a sub-investigator, her responsibilities include reviewing medical records with research coordinators, speaking with patients about the particulars of the trial, obtaining informed consent, performing physical exams and assessments, monitoring patient outcomes, and reviewing any adverse reactions. “And of course,” she said, “lots and lots of paperwork!”

Schmidt credits Becker’s class and teaching style with providing the tools, and the courage, to jump into research. She feels confident about the particular vaccine trial she is working on because it is based on proven vaccines, specifically a flu vaccine which is given to billions of people each year.

“It feels like this could actually have a really big impact on people,” she said. “Working on the vaccine trial, I mean, my goodness, this is going to impact the entire world. This could change life as we know it for everyone. And that is huge. How could you not be excited about that, right?”

Hear more about the online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program today.