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How did you become interested in science?
I don’t think I really thought much about it until I started thinking about going to college. In high school I always liked my science classes and did well in them. I took chemistry, biology, and physics but I really liked chemistry the most.
Did you know right away that you wanted to be a research scientist?
I started out thinking I might be a medical technician. I majored in biology with a minor in chemistry. Then I wanted to go into pre-veterinary medicine but in the late 60’s, vet schools weren’t really open to women. After two years of college, I applied to vet school and didn’t get into the schools I wanted to go to. The real turning point for me, though, was a college professor whose botany lab I worked in. He really encouraged me to go on to graduate school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I knew I liked science and helping in the lab and teaching.
What did you study in graduate school?
I received a fellowship to study at Oregon State University (OSU) and I came here with the intent to study marine biology with an emphasis in phycology (that means the study of algae). The first graduate class I took was way beyond what I had been exposed to coming from a small undergraduate school. At the same time I was taking a class in radiation biology and I just loved it. It was then I started gravitating toward animal type studies much more. I ended up getting my Ph.D. in general science with radiation biology as an emphasis.
How did you end up in the field of environmental health science and immunotoxicology?
The research I was doing for my Ph.D. thesis led me into this area. The war on cancer was just getting going and the role that the environment might play in cancer was being talked about a lot. My Ph.D. thesis asked the question, “What was the effect of exposure to PCBs on the growth of tumors in rats?” We thought that the rats exposed to PCBs would be more susceptible to tumor growth. Instead, they ended up showing reduced tumor growth. In an attempt to explain these findings, I hooked up with Dr. Loren Koller at OSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine. One of the areas we looked at was the potential effects of PCBs on the immune system. I eventually ended up doing a post doc with Dr. Koller. I worked with him as a half-time research assistant and spent my time writing two grants that ended up getting funded. We began to look at the effect of chemicals on the immune response specifically. My research and interests grew from there.
What led to you to do research on dioxins?
Dr. Loren Koller, who I was doing my postdoc with, had an EPA grant to look at the effects of the heavy metals lead and cadmium on the immune system — they didn’t do very much. You had to give a lot and the amount of immune modulation you saw was pretty small. The PCBs I had worked with previously were a little more active. On the third year of the grant, the EPA said, “Give us a proposal as to what chemicals you think would be most likely to be active”. We decided to look at pentachlorophenol. We compared the technical and analytical grades of pentachlorophenol and found that the technical grade, which had dioxins in it, was very immunomodulatory and the analytical grade was not. Since then, work on dioxins and PCB’s has been about 90% of my lab’s work.
What do you like about research? What makes environmental health science research exciting to you?
I’ve always been a puzzle person – jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, you name it. I really look at the kind of research I do as putting a puzzle together. Sometimes you’re working with different puzzles so you have a piece of this puzzle and piece of that puzzle and you have to figure out which puzzle the pieces go to before you can put the pieces together. Then, as soon as you think you know what is going to happen, the opposite happens. Figuring out why something went the way it did is so intriguing — you are never bored. Environmental heath science is a unique area because it is discovery but applied discovery. For example, in immunotoxicology, we take the very latest research on the understanding of the immune system and we’ll ask, “Does dioxin influence that aspect of the immune system?” We are validating and then hopefully extending our understanding of that basic finding by examining how a chemical may interact with that part of the immune system.
Do you have students in your research laboratory?
Is it difficult for them to get involved in a research project?
Yes, I do have students. I love students coming into my laboratory and watching them learn how to become a good researcher. I think that every student who comes into the lab is overwhelmed to start with and then they gradually begin to gain an understanding of what we know about a particular research problem. Pretty soon they’re finding their own niche and it is interesting to watch that happen...and it does happen. And sometimes a research project ends up a dead end, but you learn something in going down that path too.
What type of equipment or instruments do you use in your research?
I would say that we rely on the flow cytometer the most, as does lmost anyone doing immunology research, because it allows us to look at the many different kinds of cells in the immune system in ways that wouldn’t be possible by other means. There are so many applications for the flow cytometer that we can think about but that we are aren’t even doing now. As more and more reagents get developed, those applications will become possible.
What is your advice to students considering a career in science?
Get some experience working in a research lab. Volunteer or get work study jobs. Get involved in the research that is going on. Try to be in more than one lab so you don’t get turned off by one person’s particular way of doing things. There are always job opportunities out there. If you are hired as a dishwasher — ask questions. Pay attention. Participate. If you volunteer you will probably be invited to help out — another pair of hands is always useful. Also, don’t pay attention to the stereotypes that the media portrays scientists and research scientists to be because you are not holed up in a laboratory all by yourself with no one to talk to. There are many opportunities to teach and speak and interact and collaborate and travel. Females in particular shouldn’t be afraid to venture into this area — some of my best and most successful students are women. It is a good career because you are your own boss in many respects, and usually your work schedule is pretty flexible.
If you have a question for Dr. Kerkvliet, you can send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.