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 (my best friend is half Mexican), I decided to double major in Biomedical Science and Spanish. I studied abroad in Spain during my third year of undergrad, pushing back a number of classes for my science curriculum while fulfilling the curriculum for my Bachelor of Arts degree.
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 with the goal 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, as I had learned to think. I joined the laboratory of Dr. Joseph Petrosino, director of the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome research, where I learned to use state of the art software tools developed by the Rob Knight and Curtis Huttenhower laboratories 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. With this job role I can continually exercise my obsession with organization to help the project be as successful as it possibly can, and, importantly, I can not only further microbiome research, but I can bring science to the public while doing so, facilitating a general appreciation for science. What is even more exciting about my job is that the science I help see through has an incredibly personal affect on many people, and has the potential to change the world of medicine in the very near future. 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.
While I do love science, I do enjoy life outside of the laboratory. I am an avid runner-having competed in middle and high school as a sprinter and hurdler, but finding a certain enjoyment from long distance running now that I am older. I travel throughout California, Nevada, and Arizona running half marathons as part of the Rock n' Roll Half Marathon series-where I plan to run as a St. Jude Hero this year-as well as local road and trail race series, including the San Diego Dirt Devils trail race series. I've also loved horses since before I could walk, and I grew up riding my own horses (English-inlcuding jumping, Western, and bareback), an Arabian named Firecracker, who died unexpectedly in 2013, as well as fellow Arabians Cassanova and Garcia, who were sold when I entered college. Though I haven't ridden regularly since I lived in Houston, I am keen on finding horses to ride in my new home in San Diego. Reading has also been a favorite past-time-my mom would often yell at me to quit reading at the dinner table as a child. Now I read my Kindle at the dinner table, and no one yells at me for it! I also LOVE to travel and to learn about new cultures! I have especially close ties to Europe, with roots in England, Ireland, and Poland, as well as close ties to Spain, where I studied abroad and from whence hails my partner in life. 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 I’d love to hear from you!