When I was in elementary school growing up in small town Wayland, Michigan, I decided to obtain my PhD so that I could study and figure out why yawns are contagious. While I did eventually get that PhD, I still don’t know why yawns are contagious! By the time I started my undergraduate degree at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Allendale, Michigan, I had decided that I wanted to work as a geneticist, possibly a genetics counselor. I took classes during the summer semester so that I could learn all that I could about the field. Having a passion for traveling and for the Spanish language, I decided to double major in Biomedical Science and Spanish. I studied abroad in Spain during my third year of undergraduate studies.
Upon returning to the United States, I reached out to a GVSU professor-Dr. Martin Burg-doing genetics work with fruit flies. We wrote a proposal together and I clinched a summer fund through the GVSU Student Summer Scholars Program for doing research in his laboratory. I continued working in the Burg lab until I graduated. Nevertheless, it was during a basic microbiology course that was a requirement for the Biomedical Science degree-which I had pushed back due to my year abroad-that I fell in love with microbiology and my career goals took a sharp turn. I decided to obtain the microbiology emphasis option on my degree, and graduated aiming to combine my love for genetics and newfound passion for microbiology while pursuing my doctorate degree at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, Texas.
It was at BCM where I first learned about the microbiome-the entirety of microbes (and their gene products) that live in and on the human body. I learned how to characterize microbial communities through marker gene sequencing, and began to see human diseases as a complex interplay between several factors-both genetic and environmental-rather than as a consequence of a single gene mutation or anomaly. I joined the laboratory of Dr. Joseph Petrosino, director of the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome research, where I learned to use open source state of the art software tools to analyze microbial communities. I worked with a variety of sample types-from stool to oral to skin of cadavers-thus becoming a well-rounded microbiome researcher with experience across a large variety of sample types. I obtained my PhD on the human microbiome in less than four years and joined the lab of one of the elite microbiome researchers in the world, Dr. Rob Knight. It was in his lab where I began to really study the intricate ways the microbiome can affect our health, and what it means to be human. I became especially interested in how our western lifestyles have affected our microbial exposures, and in turn, our health.
After nearly a year and a half as a postdoctoral researcher in Rob Knight’s lab, I took my career to the next level by accepting the role of Project Manager for the American Gut Project, the largest crowd sourced citizen science project in existence, run out of the Knight lab. As Project Manager of Amerian Gut, I was able to further microbiome research while also bringing science to the broader community, facilitating a general appreciation for science. Evidence of the fact that microbiome research-and how it may affect health and medicine-is growing in reach is my recent selection as one of Forbes magazine's 30 Under 30 in Science, an honor that should bring recognition to and appreciation for American Gut-not to me. As the general awareness and appreciation of microbiome research grows, however, scientists are increasingly in a difficult position to accurately share their work-especially as they fight against click-bait headline coverage of microbiome research. The extreme gap in responsible education on the microbiome (and science in general) led me full circle back to an early passion of mine-writing. I have decided to use my writing skills-as well as public speaking and general outreach-to become a science writer. It is my ultimate goal to empower people to improve their lives in responsible, educated ways.
While I do love science, I do enjoy life outside of the laboratory. First and foremose, I am an athlete. A sprinter and hurdler in high school, I transitioned to distance running later in life, and now I really enjoy CrossFit. I also love to write, read, ride horses, and I LOVE to travel and to learn about new cultures! Finally, I really enjoy studying the Hebrew roots of Christianity as we know it today, and I have a passion for Torah as written in Scripture-pure and unadulterated by the traditions of man-as a way of life and not a religion.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story and to visit my site. Please read more about my research and my work, and I’d love to hear from you!