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#STEMStories: Dr. Kat, Microbiologist, USA

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

Uvlulluataq, I am Dr. Kat Napaaqtuk Milligan-Myhre. I am Inupiaq; a Microbiologist who dabbles in evolution, ecology, systems biology, and molecular biology; a runner; a mom to two kids; and a beadworker, not necessarily in that order. In my research, I use a fish found all over the northern hemisphere called threespine stickleback to study host-microbe interactions, and specifically how our genes influence how our gut microbes interact with our bodies. In other words, I’m interested in how the trillions of microbes in our gut help us grow, and how our gut microbes stop microbes that can cause disease from causing disease, and why that is different in one person vs another person.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

I have had at least a dozen jobs, ranging from radio DJ to janitor to housekeeper for a fancy hotel, to now a scientist. I had at least a dozen ideas of what I was going to do when I grew up and scientist wasn’t one of them. I thought everything was known in science, so what was the point? When I was an undergraduate student at college I thought I wanted to be an MD doctor, so I worked in research labs to make my CV more appealing. While I was there I discovered that I REALLY liked research – new discoveries every day, working in groups on projects and also independently, coming up with ideas for where to take projects, watching microbes under the microscopes, etc. I was hooked. I’ve been in research for over 20 years, and I still love it.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

I love talking to people who are passionate about learning new things, and I love coming up with ideas for learning new things. I have a lab with somewhere between 10-15 people, depending on the semester, and I love watching their scientific independence grow over the semester/year. I was also a bench scientist for almost 20 years, and recently moved into field work (collecting fish from the wild). When I am out in the field, I like to stop to watch my fish and think about how the microbes in their guts are affecting their development, behavior, and where they are getting the microbes from, and how the microbes are interacting with other microbes. So, long story short, there is a lot I love about my job.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

I like to run. When I am out for a run, I see the world in a completely different way. It helps me clear my mind when I’m stuck, it makes me feel stronger, and I can see places I would never have been able to get to by just walking/driving. My scariest run was when I was trying to run at my parents camp on the Noatak river. I ran less than a half a mile down the river, smelled a bear, and ran back to camp as fast as I could! The most beautiful run would be hard to pick. I ran with a colleague in a remote part of France at daybreak. It was a great way to talk about our science, and the sunrise was beautiful.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I have a lot of role models. I was very lucky to work for two women who were supportive and examples of what women in science can accomplish – Laura Knoll and Karen Guillemin. I also look up to Jo Handlesman, microbiologist and scientific advisor to President Obama. I have been lucky to return to my home state with my degree, which has helped me figure out how to use my education for the benefit of my tribe. For that I look to the strong women who have lead Alaskan Native education, including Della Keats.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

For a long time I tried really hard to fit in to Western society. I didn’t go home very often, I believed scientists when they dismissed traditional medicine, and I tried to downplay my heritage. I would tell my younger self to embrace what makes me different, and use that to my advantage in my studies. I see things in a different way due to my upbringing, and that has helped me tremendously as a scientist. I wish I had seen that sooner.

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

  1. Be true to yourself. Figure out what interests you and follow that passion.
  2. There are so many different exciting things to learn about in science! You don’t have restrict yourself to one field. I combine microbiology with physiology and ecology and evolution. It’s exciting to learn about so many different fields and how they fit together!
  3. There are SOOOO many people who want to help girls get into STEM. If you start with one mentor and it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, find another mentor who can help your passion for science grow.

8. How do you measure your success?

For work: papers/funding/excitement in my mentees about science.

For my family: time spent together, hugs, and honesty.

For my tribe: research that helps us make decisions about our future (haven’t accomplished that yet).

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

I am @napaaqtuk on Twitter, and my website is https://drkatlab.wordpress.com/about/