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DNA melding into phylogenetic tree

Origins of a career in science

Postdoc’s research and teaching sets foundations for a future in academia
27 July 2020
Kirsten Guckes.

Kirsten Guckes, a postdoctoral scholar working with Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Tim Miyashiro, has a plan for her future. Of course, academia is an incredibly competitive endeavor and there is no blueprint that says, “If I take these exact steps, I will end up in this exact place.” There are different pathways that can lead to that same destination, and there are many different types of jobs at different types of universities. So Guckes is making the most of her time as a postdoc to establish the skills in research and teaching that will ready her to take advantage of opportunities that arise and execute her plan.

“Along with my own research, I have a very strong interest in undergraduate education and providing research opportunities for undergraduate students,” said Guckes. “Part of why I chose to do my postdoc at Penn State was the opportunity to do research that would be more accessible to undergraduates and to be able to teach and mentor students one on one.”

Guckes’ own experience at Allegheny College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, helped establish her passion for research and for undergraduate education.

“My parents weren’t in academia, so I didn’t even really know that being a scientist was a job until I went to college,” said Guckes. “At Allegheny they have a great program that pairs research with lecture-based courses, and everyone has to do research in order to graduate. I owe a lot to my professors for opening my eyes to the possibilities, and I have always wanted to be able to do that for somebody else. I went to graduate school because I knew I needed a Ph.D. to be able to do that job.”

In graduate school at Vanderbilt University, Guckes studied pathogenic bacteria that cause urinary tract infections and how they respond to signals from their environment. Working with pathogenic bacteria requires a level of containment and safety precautions that aren’t available in all labs, so for her postdoc, she wanted to transition to working with a system that would be more accessible for undergraduates.

“I was looking for labs that did something along the same lines as my graduate work—studying signaling in bacteria—but in a system where undergraduates could work directly with bacteria in the lab,” said Guckes. “I found Tim’s lab, and when I saw his picture on the website, I realized that I had met him before. He was a postdoc in a lab where I had an undergraduate research experience.”

In the Miyashiro lab, Guckes now studies the symbiotic relationship between Hawaiian bobtail squid and the bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio fischeri. The bacteria live in tiny recesses, called crypts, in the squid’s light organ, where they produce a blue glow that is believed to help obscure the squid from predators and prey.

Recently, Guckes was honored with a National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, to fund her postdoctoral training for the next three years. The extremely competitive grant will support her research into how different strains of the bacteria interact, and actually kill each other, during the colonization process. The fallout from these competitive interactions impacts which bacterial strains are able to establish symbiosis with a particular squid host.

“I can use this grant to help establish projects that I will be able to continue when I get my next job,” said Guckes.

Guckes mentors several undergraduate researchers in the lab and has made it a priority to get experience teaching during her postdoc. She is an instructor for an inquiry-based microbiology lab course and also teaches a module of a graduate-level course

Soon Guckes will transition to the next phase of her career by applying for faculty positions. She may not know where she will end up, but she can be confident that she has prepared herself to achieve her goals and will be ready for whatever opportunity arises.

“I got some really great career advice from a speaker who visited the college last year,” said Guckes. “She said not to look at jobs based on the type of school—small liberal arts colleges versus big research universities. As long as you are able to do what is important to you in your career, you should apply.”