National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Winner: Meet Katherine

Say hello to Katherine! A foodie, fencer, and fellowship winner for this year’s National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship! Keep reading to learn more about her work on cell and organ regeneration!

EDUCATION: B.S. in Biology with a developmental genetics specialization from Stony Brook University. This Fall I will be starting a Ph.D. at Northwestern University in the Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences program.
RESEARCH: I am interested in studying stem cell biology, specifically their roles in animal development and in organ regeneration.

As a research technician, in the Martin Lab at Stony Brook University, I use genetic engineering techniques, such as CRISPR/Cas9, to study stem cell fate decisions in the zebrafish.

FUTURE GOALS:  My goal is to understand the role of stem cells in developmental and regenerative biology and how we can apply our knowledge towards medicine through stem cell and/or gene therapy. I want to investigate why some animals have the ability to regenerate while others do not and what accounts for the loss of regenerative ability as we age. I believe this track will eventually lead me to a position as a professor. However, due to the medical potential of my interests, I may work in the biotech industry and potentially, even start my own biotech company.

When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science?

Back in high school, I participated in a biology research class and did a small research project using the roundworm C. elegans to investigate neurological diseases. This class peaked my interest in biology and biological research and through different summer programs, I got to explore different fields and be a part of different research projects. These experiences, as well as AP Biology, left me passionate about biology and ultimately, made my pursue a degree in biology.

What/who got you interested in your field? Is there a story involved?

I’ve always had a fascination with stem cells because they have the potential to become any cell type in the body. While working with zebrafish in the lab, I grew even more interested in stem cells as a single cell transformed into a complex multicellular organism right before my eyes. I wondered how the cells knew what to become, how to arrange themselves and work together in a system. At the Northeastern regional Society of Developmental Biology conference, I was introduced to regenerative biology. One of the speakers displayed a time lapse video of a flatworm known commonly as planaria. In this video, the planaria was cut in half and over the next 7 days, was able to undergo whole body regeneration and create two planarian organisms.

Watch a planaria regenerate for yourself!

This sparked my curiosity to understand how planaria have this amazing ability while humans cannot. Furthermore, I found it interesting that in animal development, we have the ability to grow new organs and limbs, but are unable to undergo the same processes any time after.

What research do you do and what makes it important?

I use zebrafish to understand vertebrate development and stem cell differentiation. I focus on a group of bipotential stem cells known as the neuromesodermal progenitors and elucidate how they become either the nervous system or muscle tissues. Additionally, I utilize and optimize novel genetic tools such as CRISPR/Cas9 to create new methods to study biology. My research is important because vertebrate development is conserved throughout evolution. Therefore, understanding stem cell differentiation and development in zebrafish can provide insight into human development and eventually lead to therapies for birth defects.

You recently won the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) Award. How did that feel? What was the first thought that went through your head?

Honestly, I couldn’t believe that I had been awarded the GRF. I was in a bit of disbelief when I first got the news, but that eventually turned into excitement. I am honored that the National Science Foundation, the largest funding source for scientific research in the US, had chosen to invest in me and in my academic career. I believe this will open many different opportunities for me and I am excited to explore them in the future.

Do you have any tips or advice for others applying to the GRFP?

Start early and get as many people as you can to comment and edit it! I began to shape my personal statement and research goals starting in early September and my personal statement was edited over the course of two to three months by everyone I knew! My professors, post-docs, and graduate students were the biggest help to getting my personal statement into tip-top shape.

Katherine looking at a zebrafish under a microscope in her lab

What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science?

I think that gender bias and stereotypes need to be eradicated for girls and women, and there needs to be more opportunities for them in the sciences. Girls are not given the same opportunities and support as boys starting at a very young age, which only grows as they get older. Consequently, fewer girls have interest or are supported to go into science. There was a study showing that starting as young as age 6, girls believe that they are not as good in science and math as boys are. This perception of themselves, combined with the lack of support and other stereotypes, would limit their aspirations and career goals because they have been told by society that they are not smart enough to be a scientist. I believe that if we can correct these stereotypes and become a more supportive and inclusive society, this will change everyone’s perspective on female scientific ability and allow for more women scientists.

Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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