This month’s Former Student Spotlight highlights Shannon Mackey, who earned a Ph.D. in Microbiology at Texas A&M under the guidance of Distinguished Professor Susan Golden.  Shannon’s dissertation work focused on the biological clock system of a unicellular, photosynthetic cyanobacterium.

Shannon was born in South Dakota and bounced around the Midwest until her family settled in El Paso, Texas. She is the middle child with an older sister and younger brother. Both of her parents worked as educators, her mother in early education and her father in college statistics. The move to central Texas came when her mother became the first Aggie in their family by earning a Ph.D. in Education, Curriculum & Instruction from Texas A&M. Shannon received her B.A. in Biology from The University of Texas at Austin before returning to College Station to earn a Ph.D. in Microbiology at TAMU.

Shannon is currently an Associate Professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. She teaches microbiology and serves as Chair of the Biology Department. Her research projects are driven by the interests of her undergraduate students and have included studying bacterial growth in the presence of spices, electromagnets, and human stress hormones.

Describe a memorable experience while you were a graduate student at A&M.

At the time that I attended A&M, there was a large group of biological clocks researchers. During my final year in College Station, circadian biologists from TAMU attended the Cold Spring Harbor Quantitative Symposium. This experience was memorable for me for two reasons:

The first – I was offered the opportunity by my PI, Distinguished Professor Susan Golden, to present part of an introduction at a Biological Clocks Workshop the night before the big conference began. This experience stands out in my mind because of the massive amount of hard work that went into writing up a summary of the molecular interactions among clock genes and their protein products in each of the major model systems. Presenting those ideas to some of the top researchers in the field was such an amazing experience.

The second – about a dozen Aggies went to a Mets game while we were in New York. On the way back to the conference, we were caught in a huge rain storm. As we ran into the subway station, we looked like a pack of wet rats waiting sheepishly for the next train. It was such a funny sight!

Tell us what you have been doing since graduating with your Ph.D. in Microbiology from A&M.

After earning my PhD, I stayed an additional year in the lab in which I graduated to finish up some research projects and get some teaching experience in a lecture setting. This teaching experience allowed me to be competitive for the teaching position that I have now at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA. I started as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 2007 and have since received tenure and been promoted to Associate Professor. Currently I serve as Chair of the Biology Department.

What advice would you give to a new graduate student?

It’s the advice that I was given, but didn’t follow: “One week in the library can save you one month at the lab bench.” As researchers, we tend to want to jump into a lab technique to get our hands dirty. Sometimes, it’s more beneficial to take a step back, assimilate as much of the literature as you can, and then design and conduct the perfect experiment (with all the necessary controls!).

Also, and this I did follow, take advantage of every opportunity given to you. Yes, it’s important to know when to say “no” to additional responsibilities, but there is power in having tried so many different things that you know exactly what types of things you like and don’t like to do.

Tell us about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.

After having been out of circadian biology research for a little while, my former PI (Susan Golden) asked if I would like to contribute alongside Dr. Jayna Ditty (a former post-doc in Susan’s lab; currently at St. Thomas University, St. Paul, MN) to a review chapter for The Genetics of Circadian Rhythms that was being compiled by editor Stuart Brody. Juggling this writing project with my teaching responsibilities was challenging and required a great deal of time management; in the end, the project was done beautifully. I’m pretty proud of it.

What projects are you currently working on?

At SAU, members of the biology faculty don’t have their own research agenda. Instead, we provide opportunities for our students to design their own experiments based on their interests. As one of two microbiologists in our department, I often serve as research mentor to students interested in bacteria. Most students who seek out my research supervision are interested in ways to influence the growth of bacteria; many students want to disrupt biofilm formation using common foods (like spices or juices) and some are interested in examining how chemicals (like epinephrine) are involved in enhancing bacterial growth and motility.

Tell us how your research has influenced your teaching?

Although I was trained as a microbiologist, the type of research that has had the greatest impact on my teaching was my participation in the FUTURE in Biomedicine program at the University of Iowa. During that summer, and two subsequent summers, I worked in the lab of Dr. Lori Wallrath, I took on a couple of different research projects that dealt with epigenetic phenomena and gene silencing in Drosophila. Working with fruit flies was a little out of my wheelhouse; it reminded me how slow the process of getting up to speed with a new model system is, which has helped me to have more patience when teaching. My microbiology class is the first time that many of my students have even thought about bacteria as anything other than “germs.”

What pedagogical changes do you see on the horizon in your discipline?

Within our program, we are really pushing to train our students to act like scientists. We want students to be able to use their scientific knowledge as a springboard for being able to think critically about biological problems. As such, we are trying to incorporate more hypothesis-driven research projects in the lab components of our courses, and critical thinking exercises and case studies in our lecture sections.

What strengths do you have that make you a successful mentor to the undergraduates in your lab?

Being a research mentor is tough. My biggest strength is that I had really strong, helpful, thoughtful mentors during my own graduate career. The members of my committee, as well as the Biology Department at A&M as a whole, were extremely supportive from day one. I hope that I provide that same type of support to my undergraduates when they pursue a research project with me.

Describe someone who has had the greatest impact/influence on your career.

Susan Golden, for sure. I always appreciated Susan while I was in her lab, but that appreciation has increased exponentially after I left her lab. I look back at how smoothly and calmly she related to each and every one of her students, post-docs, and technicians. She is not only an amazing scientist, but can relate to so many different people in ways that are most appropriate for each one of them.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I just finished by 5th Warrior Dash! I love getting muddy and jumping through obstacles.

Shannon Mackey

Shannon Mackey

Shannon Mackey