5 questions with…infection prevention, control expert Irena Kenneley

Irena Kenneley CWRU headshotBefore she was born, Irena Kenneley’s family immigrated to the United States from Lithuania after years of persecution under Russian communist rule post-World War II. Growing up on Cleveland’s East Side, Kenneley initially struggled in school, where subjects were taught in English, not her family’s native Lithuanian.

However, the passion of a seventh-grade biology teacher sparked Kenneley’s curiosity in the sciences—and eventually a career.

The teacher, Kenneley remembered, “was exuberant and excited about the subject she was teaching, and that’s when I really started paying attention.”

Kenneley went on to study microbiology at Lake Erie College, focusing heavily on the human pathogen aspects of the field. After college, she spent 15 years working in a microbiology lab with the goal of becoming an infection control professional.

To learn the patient side of health care, she returned to school to become a registered nurse. She worked at several area hospitals as an infection control nurse, but returned to school again, earning a master’s degree in public health nursing at Case Western Reserve University.

Again, it was Kenneley’s teachers who continued to inspire and challenge her, ultimately pushing her to pursue a PhD in nursing and become a mentor to her own students.

“I became a teaching assistant for professor emeritus E. Ronald Wright,” she said. “In my second year, I became a lecturer, then instructor, and when Professor Wright left, I started teaching microbiology.”

Kenneley, an assistant professor at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, teaches several undergraduate- and graduate-level courses: microbiology, immunology, epidemiology, public health and nursing education.

Her research focuses on antibiotic resistance and infection control, prevention in home health care and prevention of health care-acquired infections.

Kenneley also writes a quarterly column for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control journal Prevention Strategist. The journal brings emerging infectious diseases to the forefront and highlights organisms that commonly cause healthcare-associated infections.

Her latest column titled “My Bugaboo: Lyme disease­—Can you hit the bullseye?” examines where ticks are often found, how to remove them from the skin, symptoms of Lyme disease and how to guard against the illness—especially in the summer, when most prevalent.

In the article, Kenneley provides a history of the (relatively) newly discovered disease, preventive measures to avoid tick bites and action to take if bitten.

“People should try to avoid the brush on the fringes of wooded areas and leaf litter as best they can,” she said. “If bitten, the tick won’t transmit the disease for 24 hours, so be sure to remove it as soon as possible.”

This weekend, Kenneley will teach a microbiology workshop for the next generation of infection preventionists at APIC’s annual educational conference in California.

Learn more about Kenneley in this week’s five questions.

1. Who do you consider your greatest role model?
I had an algebra teacher in ninth grade named Sister Manon. Algebra was my worst subject, but thanks to her passion and brilliance, I was finally able to understand it for the first time.

2. How do you keep up with the news?
I watch both the local and national news nightly. I also watch Meet the Press on Sunday mornings.

3. What is the most challenging class you’ve ever taken?
The most challenging class I ever took was a quantitative analysis chemistry class at Lake Erie College.

4. What do you consider the best invention of all time?
Immunizations. Right now, there is a major measles outbreak in this country because children are not getting properly vaccinated. Measles is a miserable childhood disease that is completely preventable.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The students. They are so bright and so intelligent. Every semester they blow me away. It’s fun to be around people who want to learn.