A Path Toward Pathogens

December 19, 2016
Katie Kelly receives research award for her interest in microbe-pathogen interactions in lungs affected by cystic fibrosis.

Katie Kelly

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) named Katie Kelly, a CBS senior and microbiology major, as an ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship recipient for 2016. The award includes a research stipend and funding to travel to the Microbe Academy for Professional Development and ASM Microbe Meeting to outstanding students who wish to pursue an advanced degree in microbiology. Kelly researches under Dr. Ryan Hunter, whose main studies include investigating the ecology of respiratory diseases, including microbial interactions in lungs of people with cystic fibrosis. Her project focused on how a pathogen responds to the mucus-fermentation byproducts made by a community of oral microbes in cystic fibrosis lungs. We recently caught up with Kelly to hear more about her research and future career endeavors.

What interested you in this field of research?
Coming to college, I thought I wanted to study epidemiology. I found outbreak movies (e.g. Contagion, Outbreak) so interesting because they illustrated how microorganisms can have an effect on such a large scale. I took a variety of classes, attended different clubs and read some primary literature and books which made me realize that microbes interested me more than epidemics. Since then, I've jumped into the deep end of the pool of microbiology, trying to read as much literature and get as much lab experience as I can. No regrets, thus far.

What was the most helpful part of your research experience?
More time at the bench is always a benefit. Throughout this project, I honed some technical skills and developed better methods for troubleshooting. The biggest benefit I derived from this experience was determining how to set up experiments to minimize ambiguous outcomes. This means setting up proper controls, testing various conditions to optimize the result--essentially, what many consider the mundane aspects of science research. My mentor Jeff Flynn and a few independent, sloppy experiments taught me the value of this skill.

How do you see this helping you in your future career endeavors?
This project was a practice in independence and diligence. Although my mentor advised me on many aspects, the day-to-day work was fairly independent. Graduate school will be much more independent, so this experience provided a helpful transition to that next stage.

What are your career goals? Why do you want to pursue that career?
My next goal is attend graduate school for a PhD in microbiology. The unromantic reason for attaining PhD is that nearly every career field I'm interested in requires it. However, I really do love learning about and discussing microbiology (I even write about it in my free time on hbrnews.umn.edu) and I can see myself as a staff scientist or professor in the distant future. Until then, more research!

Anything else you’d like to share?
I encourage every student to seek out opportunities like this fellowship. There are many research opportunities through the NSF, individual university summer research programs, and many on-campus programs like UROP and LSSURP. Get involved and dig deep into your field!