Author: Kendra Alfson | Category: Final Words... | Infection, Inflammation & Immunity (Triple-I) | Infection, Inflammation, and Immunity | May 07, 2015
Congratulations Kendra Alfson, the newest graduate from the Microbiology and Immunology program, for successfully defending your dissertation "characterizing
and understanding the biological consequences of filovirus genome plasticity."
Please tell me about yourself, why did you pick
UT Health Science Center, and your program.
I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado,
which is where I received my B.S. in biology (at University of Colorado Denver)—I
still miss the mountains often, but I never liked skiing.
I worked through high
school and college at a movie theater. Then I became a research assistant for a
social science nonprofit group. That job helped me realize I enjoyed research
but I knew I could only be truly passionate about something in the “hard”
sciences, ideally something microbiology related.
I thought I might want to
teach one day at the college level, which is one reason I chose to pursue
graduate education. I chose UTHSCSA for many reasons; I liked the idea of an
interdisciplinary program, San Antonio seemed like a great place to live, the
research being done at the school (and at Texas Biomedical Research Institute under the lab of Dr. Anthony Griffiths where chose to
do my research) was fascinating.
Because I was always intrigued by
microbiology and specifically virology, the program was a no brainer.
I also liked the multidisciplinary nature of the program; I thought it would
help me become more well-rounded and prepared for the increasingly
interdisciplinary world of science research.
I chose to do my research at Texas
Biomedical Research Institute because I loved the environment and amazing research there. Everyone was
very helpful, supportive, knowledgeable, friendly, and enthusiastic during my
rotations.I felt like it would be a great place to learn, grow, and become
part of the “family.”
Please provide a few sentences summarizing your dissertation.
What was the experience like for you?
I investigated the
hypothesis that filoviruses
have high spontaneous mutation rates that contribute to viral evolution, viral
diversity, and pathogenicity.
This is an important question because the genome
plasticity of filoviruses—highly lethal, incurable, hemorrhagic fever viruses—was
unknown and information about this is critical for gaining a better
understanding or viral emergence, viral transmission, pathogenesis, and for
developing treatments or preventative measures.
My results supported the hypothesis and indicated that the mutation
frequency for filoviruses is similar to other RNA viruses. Furthermore, I found
that filovirus genome plasticity generated genotypic and phenotypic changes
when the virus was subjected to different selection pressures and filovirus
genome plasticity has important consequences during in vivo studies of countermeasure development or disease modeling.
The experience was
really great. I truly enjoyed my lab, supervisor, and the environment at Texas
Biomedical Research Institute. I was so lucky to have such an exciting, dynamic project to work on.
The project continued to expand in to a lot of cool areas so I always had new
and intriguing directions to go in. It was an incredible journey; I met many
amazing people along the way and learned so much.
Why are you passionate about your research
topic? How did you first become interested in it?
I have always been interested in
filoviruses but never dreamed I would be lucky enough to gain the opportunity
to do research on them.
My mom was a nurse and inspired me at a young age to
learn more about science and public health issues. I first became interested in
filoviruses years ago from reading about them (in books like ‘Hot Zone’); I
think this is a very cliché response but it’s definitely the case for me.
high school, I’ve also been fascinated by genetics and evolution. So a project
that combined these two topics (viruses and genetics/evolution) was perfect for
What was your best memory during graduate school
or what did you learn?
I learned that a positive attitude and
outlook can go a long way in helping survive and succeed in graduate school. I
worked in a smaller lab environment where team work was super important so I
learned how important and helpful a good, trustworthy, group of colleagues
(that you get along with) can be.
Some of my best memories from graduate
school were attending the ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting in Washington, D.C. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend four years now. It has
been a great opportunity to learn a lot about new advances in the field, bond
with colleagues, network, and grow as a scientist.
I have accepted a postdoctoral scientist
position at Texas Biomedical Research Institute. I’ll be pursuing some new
avenues opened up by my dissertation project, become more involved in some in vivo projects, and start on some new
projects/experiments the lab is taking on. I’m very excited and looking forward
to my future there.
Any advice for your fellow graduate students?
Stay positive; there is a light at the end of
the tunnel and when you get there you realize how completely worth it
everything was (even if it didn’t always feel like that at the time!). You will
make it through if you keep a good attitude, apply yourself, and work hard.
Create and nurture good, close relationships with your fellow graduate students
and colleagues—they are the support that will help get you through the tough
While it is important to work hard (and often work a lot of hours),
don’t neglect your personal life; your work will suffer if you don’t take time
to relax/blow off steam and you need to live in the now (enjoy your current
situation!) rather than constantly living for tomorrow.
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