The Story Behind the Scientist with Katie Fixen

September 17, 2018

Katie Fixen

There are two absolutes in science: Failure is frequent and inevitable.

“A lot of what you do [day-to-day] in the lab doesn’t work,” says Dr. Katie Fixen, a microbiologist who recently joined the Plant and Microbial Biology Department on the St. Paul campus.

She is undaunted by the fits and starts of progress, however: A roadblock is an opportunity to rework the puzzle, try a different approach. “It’s the great thought experiment,” she says.

Fixen’s current challenge is to find a reliable source of alternative energy that could reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Her lab is studying Rhodopseudomonas palustris (R. pal), a metabolically-versatile photosynthetic bacterium, hoping to develop a more efficient way to extract energy from the sun and convert it into biofuel energy.

She first caught the science bug as a kid, exploring the woods near her childhood home in Fairbanks, Alaska. She wants other kids to catch that bug, too, which is why she makes an effort to cultivate interest in science with preteens, especially girls and minorities, whose confidence and interest in math and science begin to wane after middle school.

As a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington, Fixen took part in workshops aimed at drawing out middle-school girls, and getting them excited about science and thinking about careers in science. “We had them [play the role of] ‘microbe hunters’ and had them do a number of tests, including gram stain, catalase test, ice nucleation, etc., to help identify four bacterial cultures.”

She gets satisfaction and joy “from helping others learn really cool things about our world through science,” she says. “I also feel that it is important to engage young people in science and help them develop a better understanding of the importance of basic research.” (She has also mentored high-schoolers, undergrad, and Master’s students.)

Fixen received a B.S. in microbiology from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics from Harvard Medical School. She was a post-doctoral fellow and later an assistant research professor at University of Washington. She returned to the U of M in December 2017 as an assistant professor.

She recalls no mind-blowing science-fair project, no remarkable biology experiment that dictated her destiny in science. An avid reader with a curiosity for science, Fixen’s passion evolved gradually, fueled by her older sister, who is a chemical engineer, and the help of many mentors.

She was in middle school when her family to South Dakota to be closer to extended family. A family friend who taught biology at Dakota State University nurtured Fixen’s interest in science, sharing her love for biology with Fixen, passing along books and taking time to discuss them with her. By high school, Fixen knew science was her vocation.

“I’ve had great mentors throughout my career,” she says. “Dr. Cindy Tong and Dr. Gary Dunny at UMN showed me what it was like to do research, which helped me decide to go to grad school. Dr. Carrie Harwood at the University of Washington was really instrumental in preparing me to be a faculty member.” 

The decision to follow her heart was reaffirmed recently “when my technician showed me [encouraging] results from the first experiment we did in the lab,” she says. “I had that exact thought … ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”

-Ruth Weleczki


Inspirational source: Family friend, college professors, and her older sister, who is a chemical engineer at Pfizer Inc.

Unexpected true facts: Fixen is a native of Alaska and has a fraternal twin sister, who is a graphic artist

When she’s not doing science…: She enjoys outdoors, biking, boating, cross-country skiing, finding ways to wear out her 3-year-old son, Soren.

When nobody’s looking, I…: Curl up with a good glass of wine and a terrible science fiction book

Night reading: Microbe Hunters; Bones: A Forensic Detective’s Casebook; The Hot Zone; Mapping Fate: A Memoir of Family, Risk, and Genetic Research 

Zodiac sign: Aries