Student Spotlight – Katie Patenaude

Katie Patenaude is one of the nine graduate students who received a research fellowship to focus on research this summer.  She took time to answer a few questions about the impact of the award, her experience at UMaine and plans for the future.  We wish her the best as she defends her dissertation on September 27! 

What led you to UMaine and to your major?
As a first generation college student from rural Maine, my education has always been important to me. I always knew that I wanted to pursue a graduate degree after obtaining my bachelors, and I fell in love with research following a year of working as a student researcher at the Aroostook Research Farm, which is an agricultural research farm owned by the University of Maine. I had pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology with a Pre-Med concentration in undergrad, so I decided to merge my love of medical science and research by pursuing a PhD of Biomedical Sciences. My prior experience with UMaine research and the unique structure of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Engineering (GSBSE) program here on campus led me to apply to UMaine. This research-based PhD program is unique as students can perform research at one of 5 prestigious research sites across the State of Maine including the University of Maine, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, The Jackson Laboratory, the University of New England, and the MaineHealth Institute for Research. I am originally from Maine, so attending UMaine for my PhD was also an added bonus for me as I have easy access to my family here in Maine.

What is a short description of the research project you are involved in?
My research project involves investigating how interactions between the bacterium Streptococcus agalactiae (also known as Groub B Streptococcus or GBS) and the fungus Candida albicans influence the ability of these microbes to infect a host, as well as how being infected with both pathogens may differ from being infected by just one in terms of survival and treatment effectiveness. We have decided to investigate interactions between these pathogens as they both tend to infect the same types of patients (those who are immunocompromised, newborn, elderly, pregnant, etc.), and previous research has shown that C. albicans can interact with other Streptococcal species to enhance their ability to infect patients. We have used larval zebrafish as an animal model to study how co-infections of GBS and C. albicans may differ from solo infections with either microbe. Larval zebrafish are an excellent model for studying infectious disease because zebrafish at this stage of development are immunocompromised (like the patients GBS and C. albicans tend to infect) and they are transparent at this stage of infection, allowing for us to fluorescently image an infection in zebrafish in real time, which gives us a much better understanding of infection progression. Our research has shown that C. albicans can enhance the ability of GBS to grow and survive in stressful media conditions, as well as make GBS less susceptible to some antibiotics in vitro. Co-infections with GBS and C. albicans were also significantly more virulent in zebrafish compared to solo infections with either microbe, indicating that these infectious organisms may interact to make infections more severe.

Did you select it or was it in progress?
My advisor Dr. Melody Neely and our collaborator Dr. Robert Wheeler proposed this project to me as a collaboration project between our research labs which eventually became my main PhD project. We started this research project without prior data from our labs, which has been a challenge but has been worth it!

What are some of your research tasks?
My research tasks include creating fluorescent bacterial strains, fluorescent microscopy, zebrafish maintenance and infection assays, as well as mentoring undergraduate and summer students in our research labs.

What were some exciting, rewarding moments, and some setbacks?
I have had the opportunity to teach undergraduates as both an instructor and a teaching assistant here on campus which has been very rewarding for me personally as I strive to be a college professor in the future. I also was awarded an outstanding graduate teaching award from my department which was a major accomplishment for me! I have also had the opportunity to present my original research at both UMaine sponsored and outside science conferences, and winning a poster award at the Gordon Research Conference of Streptococcal Biology last August has been a highlight of my research career.
With my research project being a brand-new project in our research lab I have also had multiple setbacks during my research career, including malfunctioning science equipment, unexplainable data, and issues with our zebrafish not breeding well and pushing experiments back. While setbacks are frustrating, they also force you to become creative in how you design experiments to answer your research questions, which I feel has made me a better scientist foundationally.

What are your future plans?
I am defending my dissertation on September 27th which is very exciting! I am teaching two courses on campus this semester, so after I am finished with these courses I will be looking to join another research lab at another research institute as a post-doctoral researcher. Following this, I would love to someday come back to Maine to be a college professor hopefully teaching microbiology and other courses involving medical topics.
7. Would you like to recognize one or more faculty members, advisors, or administrative staff for their help?
I am so thankful for the help that my advisor Dr. Melody Neely has provided me during my graduate career. I came to grad school without a full knowledge of what to expect, and her mentorship and support has made me feel as though I will be a successful independent scientist in the future. Beyond lab work, Dr. Neely has been such a support system for me with some personal challenges I have faced in the last couple of years, and I could not have asked for a more understanding and thoughtful advisor. I highly recommend working with Dr. Neely if you get the chance!
I also would like to thank Dr. Ed Bernard here on campus for his mentorship in teaching, as he has helped me become a much better instructor as well as an support system when teaching as a new instructor has felt overwhelming.
I also want to shout-out the administrative staff in the Molecular and Biomedical Sciences department here on campus, who always go out of their way to take care of their students and put out needs first. They are the best!

Can you see this research continued by others?
We have some amazing undergraduate researchers who have previously helped me with experiments for my project, and I know once I graduate my project will be in good hands! I am lucky in that my project is just a starting project in our lab, and some of the research I have worked on will be expanded upon by undergraduate students hopefully for a long time!

Will it have clinical applications?
I believe that my research does have clinical applications! One of the most clinical findings we have discovered through my project is that C. albicans can make GBS less susceptible to the antibiotics erythromycin and clindamycin both in vitro and in vivo. Resistance by GBS to these antibiotics has risen dramatically in the last 20 years without a direct cause being identified. Our research may help shine a light on why exactly GBS is becoming more resistant to these antibiotics, and if interactions with other microbes like C. albicans can drive antibiotic resistance in this bacterial species. Having a better understanding of the causes of antibiotic resistance can help us determine better ways to treat patients in a clinical setting.