This month’s Graduate Student Spotlight highlights Kathleen McAllister! A Biology student in the Sorg Lab, Kathleen studies C. difficile and helped develop the CRISPR-Cas9 modification system in order to study this fascinating organism.
I’m from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, specifically from St. Martin which is a small community on the Gulf Coast. I’ve always been eager to learn, starting when I was little playing “school” with my sister and her friends. I’ve also always had a passion to help people. My life goal was to be able to do both. I earned my bachelor’s in Biomedical Sciences from the University of South Alabama. Here I was involved in the University Honors Program which had a requirement for completing an undergraduate thesis. Not really knowing what I was getting into, I thought doing research in a microbiology lab would be “cool” and interesting. I worked on studying the role of a virulence plasmid in the starvation stress response in S. typhimurium (Spoiler alert: it had no significant affect.) This experience helped me realize that I didn’t have to be a physician to help people and that a career path in research was right for me. I could work “behind the scenes”, where I am most comfortable (besides the occasional presentation), and work on basic and translational science in microbiology.
What inspired you to join Dr. Sorg’s lab?
C. difficile research was the main draw for me in Dr. Sorg’s lab. For my undergraduate honors thesis project, I worked on studying the role of a virulence plasmid in the starvation stress response in S. typhimurium.
Since I decided to go to graduate school, I’ve wanted to continue to work with a bacterial pathogen. At the time, the lab was almost exclusively focused on spore germination and the process that forms a vegetative, toxin-producing cell, so this research appealed to me the most. It was an added bonus that the personalities and dedication of the people in the lab fit what I was looking for.
What projects are you currently working on?
Since we have developed the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic modification system for C. difficile, I have been optimizing that system for more capabilities. Specifically we are trying to fine-tune our plasmid to not only be more efficient, but also be able to make more subtle mutations such as base pair changes and insertions. In addition, I am studying the role of selenium incorporation into proteins as it relates to the overall growth of the organism as well as the global effect on the organism.
What was a factor in your decision to study at Texas A&M University?
A large factor for me was trying to pick a great microbiology graduate program at a university which also offered a highly ranked master’s program for my husband, Jeremy, who was finishing up his degree in Industrial Engineering. Texas A&M University was the best of both worlds.
TAMU is well known for the outstanding research. I wanted to go to a university where I was not limited to what I could do and how far I could take my research. Coming from a relatively small university, my ideal graduate program was one where there was a community. I was nervous about coming to such a large institution and being a “small fish in a big pond”. It was obvious by the end of my first day during recruiting weekend that the Biology Department was the place for me.
What advice would you give to new/incoming graduate students?
My advice would be to make sure to force yourself to have fun. We often get too caught up in balancing all of our roles as graduate students (i.e., researcher, student, and/or teacher) that we forget to recharge and destress. It is important to focus and stress a little on everything that comes with being a graduate student, but for your and everyone else’s sanity, make sure you schedule time to have some fun.
What are your long-term goals?
I would love to continue to work with a bacterial pathogen. I think starting out working with C. difficile, which smells and is difficult to work with, as well as having evolving projects has given me a strong and varied skillset. While developing the CRISPR-Cas9 system for C. difficile, I also have found that I have a passion for bacterial genetics. I would also like to use the skillsets I have learned developing the CRISPR system later in my career. While I haven’t decided specifically on what my next step will be in my career, I know I eventually want to be doing research in some facet of industry.
What outlets do you have to relieve stress?
My outlet for stress on a daily basis is going home to play with my Labrador retriever, Ellie, and spend time with my husband. No matter how great or troubling my day has been, my dog greets me at the door like she hasn’t seen me in days. I try to take some time most days to read a book. I love getting lost in the narrative and completely shutting my mind off to everything else. I have really gotten into reading Stephen King novels lately. Not surprisingly, my favorite has been The Stand so far.
The best stress relief is going to concerts with Jeremy. Being centrally located to the major cities in Texas, we are able to easily to see some of our favorite bands, such as Imagine Dragons (twice).
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
My graduating class went against the norm and voted some of the nerdy kids Homecoming and Prom Queen. Being a nerdy kid, it was pretty surprising to be voted Prom Queen. What made it even more ironic was that I had been voted “most shy” for the yearbook just a few months earlier.