Katelyn Amero: UMaine junior named a 2023 Goldwater Scholar

University of Maine junior Katelyn Amero of Mapleton, Maine has been named a 2023 Goldwater Scholar. 

Amero, a double major in biochemistry and microbiology, and a member of the Honors College, is one of 413 college students nationwide who were named Goldwater Scholars for the 2023–24 academic year, according to the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation website. This year, there were 1,267 nominees from 427 academic institutions. 

Amero is the sixth UMaine student to receive a Goldwater Scholarship since 2017. This scholarship, which honors U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, aims to identify and support college sophomores and juniors who demonstrate the potential to become the nation’s leading researchers in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics disciplines. UMaine students are nominated to participate in the national selection by a faculty committee led by Professor Robert Wheeler. 

“I feel incredibly honored to have been named a Goldwater Scholar out of such a large and competitive pool of applicants,” Amero says. “It has truly boosted my confidence as a researcher, and I am very proud to be representing UMaine research at the national level.”

Amero, a Maine Top Scholar, has been conducting research on phage genomics in the lab of Sally Molloy, associate professor of genomics, since she was a sophomore. This year, she began her undergraduate thesis project to study how prophages, viral genomes that integrate into bacterial genomes, affect mycobacterial survival inside macrophages, specialized cells that detect and destroy harmful bacteria. 

Researchers in Molloy’s lab discovered two prophages that have been shown to impact gene expression and increase antibiotic resistance in pathogenic mycobacteria. For her project, Amero will test whether these prophages will help a bacteria called Mycobacterium chelonae survive in mouse macrophages. 

The Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), a collaborative coalition of education and research institutions, awarded Amero a Pre-Thesis Fellowship last year to begin her project, and a Summer Research Fellowship to help her continue working on it this summer. In summer 2022, she received a fellowship from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program to study the antibiotic resistance and virulence of Klebsiella pneumoniae at Yale University. 

Additionally, Amero was awarded a UMaine Visual and Performing Arts Scholarship for her talents as a percussionist, and was recently inducted into Phi Kappa Phi, the nation’s oldest and most selective multidisciplinary collegiate honor society.

“Katelyn has outstanding skills in independent thinking, and although just an undergraduate junior, she is already functioning like a graduate student,” Molloy says. “The Molloy lab has established that prophages increase expression of mycobacterial genes that are involved in drug resistance and survival in macrophages. Katelyn is currently optimizing macrophage survival assays with strains of M. chelonae and will be ultimately testing the effect of prophages on the bacterium’s ability to survive in the intracellular environment of the macrophage. With just one year of experience working in the lab, she has become incredibly independent in researching the protocols she will use and is fearless about carrying out new experiments. She applies her learning from the literature to her work and is comfortable and capable of troubleshooting experiments when they don’t work. She is a dream to work with and her potential as a researcher is limitless.” 

We spoke with Amero more about her goals and experiences at UMaine: 

What motivated you to pursue the Goldwater Scholarship? 
I first heard about the Barry Goldwater Scholarship from my research mentor Dr. Sally Molloy. I had joined the Molloy Lab as a rising sophomore after taking the Phage Genome Discovery courses in my first year, and I quickly fell in love with biomedical research after previously being on the pre-medicine track. I really enjoyed the element of discovery, problem solving and innovation, which made me become really passionate about research. Dr. Molloy took note of this and began encouraging me to apply for this competitive research scholarship during my sophomore year. As I expanded my research experience and took on more independent projects, I became very determined to apply and see how far my passion for research could take me.

How will it benefit you in your future academic goals?
While this honor does come with an award that will support my undergraduate thesis research, the greatest benefit will be the impact on my future graduate research opportunities and career. Being named a Goldwater Scholar signifies that I am passionate about research, have considerable undergraduate experience and am serious about pursuing a Ph.D. I am hopeful that this will open a lot of doors when I am applying to Ph.D. programs this coming year.

What extracurricular activities have occupied your time?
I have been a member of the Screamin’ Black Bears Pep Band as a percussionist since my sophomore year. I’ve been a member of UMaine’s Operation HEARTS club since my freshman year and was recently elected as next year’s president. The club does medically-based community service in the Orono/Bangor area and offers mentorship and support to pre-medicine and biomedical science students. I am also a member of UMaine’s Undergraduate Women in STEMM club and will be next year’s treasurer. I was also a member and treasurer of the Sophomore Eagles honor and tradition society. Outside of college extracurriculars, I enjoy collecting vinyl records, photography and hiking.

Why did you choose to study at UMaine? 
I chose to go to the University of Maine because it felt like an ideal stepping stone. I am from Aroostook County, Maine and wanted to pursue my undergraduate degree within the state, and the University of Maine had the greatest amount of opportunities. I was intrigued by the majors and research opportunities within the Department of Molecular and Biomedical Sciences, especially the Phage Genome Discovery courses, and also the opportunities to continue music and other extracurriculars.

Have you worked closely with a mentor, professor or role model who made your time at UMaine better?
Ever since my first semester at UMaine, I’ve worked closely with Dr. Sally Molloy who has been my professor, academic adviser, and research advisor. Dr. Molloy’s effective and enthusiastic teaching style pulled me into research when I took her Phage Genome Discovery courses, and soon after I asked to join her lab. She has been great at noticing the skills I have to offer and placing me on projects that I can both execute and learn from. She has been incredibly supportive, always pushes me to my full potential and is always thinking ahead about the next experiments I should run or the next opportunity I should apply for. Her guidance has already set me up for many successes and has built me into a true researcher and scientist.

Did you have an experience at UMaine that shaped or changed how you see the world?
My worldview was changed by two different course sequences that I took in my first two years at UMaine. The first was the Phage Genome Discovery course sequence, which introduced me to biomedical research. I majored in biochemistry because I was fascinated by the role of chemistry in biology and medicine, but learning about the pressing issue of antibiotic-resistant bacteria made me realize how important, exciting and rewarding biomedical research is. This made me decide to pursue research and later led to me adding a second major in microbiology. My worldview was also changed significantly by the Honors Civilizations course sequence. Reading texts from the earliest human civilizations up to texts about fighting climate change put so many modern issues and concepts into perspective. I feel that being in the Honors College allowed me to become a well-rounded scholar as a student taking primarily STEM courses.

Describe UMaine in one word
If I had to describe UMaine in one word, I would describe it as impactful.

Please explain 
There are so many students, especially undergraduates, that are contributing valuable knowledge to the world through their coursework and research. There is also a very strong sense of community at UMaine, as students care greatly about others and their environment and are always pushing for change. Despite our rural location, we definitely make huge contributions to the rest of the world.

What are your post graduation plans?
After I graduate next year, I hope to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences, perhaps in microbiology or molecular genetics. I think that UMaine has greatly prepared me for this academic pursuit by having so many undergraduate research opportunities available, especially in the biomedical sciences. UMaine has effectively prepared me for outside research experiences and for the Goldwater Scholarship, and I am confident that completing my honors thesis will greatly prepare me for graduate research.

Students interested in learning more about the Goldwater Scholarship can reach out to the Office of Major Scholarships Director Nives Dalbo-Wheeler at nives.dalbowheeler@maine.edu.

Contact: Marcus Wolf, 207.581.3721; marcus.wolf@maine.edu