All the Places You’ll Go

Aneesa Noormohamed, M.S. (Microbiology)

Dr. Noormohamed was taken with microbiology as a young child living in Africa. But it was a high-school biology project that helped her see that microbiology would be the perfect fit for her. It was this revelation that led her to Concordia College in Moorhead where she earned a B.S. in microbiology. She then jumped the river to work on her Master's degree in the lab of Dr. Catherine Logue (who is now a professor at Iowa State University). Here, she studied the foodborne pathogen, Campylobacter. Although this is her favorite microbe, Streptococcus pyogenes takes a close second ("...because I love the name!"). Aneesa went on to earn a Ph.D. in the lab of Dr. Mohamed Fakhr (who is a former VMS postdoctoral researcher) at the University of Tulsa.

Aneesa is currently in Africa with her family and is on a mission to secure a postdoc position. Although her passion is research, Aneesa takes part in many activities outside the lab: reading, painting, dabbling with other crafty things, hanging out with friends, and traveling. Her best piece of advice for aspiring microbiologists is to make sure you love what you do and to not be afraid to take on the challenges. They may be tough, but they can be the most rewarding parts of an education and a career.

By Katie Kelsven

Chantal Nde, '07 Ph.D. (Food Safety)

Dr. Nde came to NDSU after completing her undergraduate studies at the University of Buea in Cameroon. Her doctorate work was funded by a USDA grant and focused on risk analysis of Salmonella in turkeys. Dr. Catherine Logue (currently a professor of vet microbiology and preventive medicine at Iowa State University) advised her through this project and is still her mentor in life. Chantal currently serves as a Senior Scientist in the Microbiology and Food Safety department of Kraft Foods in Chicago. She loves Zumba and yoga, and she'll travel anywhere she can get a ticket. Her scientific idol is Rosalind Franklin, for her key role in discovering the double helical nature of DNA, and her advice to aspiring microbiologists is to "go out into the field and find out what you like."

By Michael Mann

Julie Wagendorf, B.S. (Microbiology and Medical Technology), M.S. (Microbiology)

Julie chose microbiology as a career path because she found the professors in VMS to be inspiring. She worked in the media room and as a teaching assistant for some lab courses, which only reinforced her interest in the field. She credits these experiences with helping her find a job after graduation. Julie earned an associate's degree in Computer Science and Database Management from Bismarck State College after graduating from NDSU, and she currently works for the ND Department of Health.

By Sara Bowman

Julie Wagendorf graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in Microbiology and Medical Technology as well as a minor in Chemistry. She went on to obtain a Master’s Degree in Microbiology, also at NDSU. Later, she added an Associate’s Degree from Bismarck State College in Computer Support and Database Management. She chose microbiology as a career path because she found the professors in the department to be inspiring. She also developed an interest in food microbiology and food safety as an undergraduate at NDSU. She worked in the media room and as a teaching assistant for some lab courses, which only reinforced her interest in the field. She credits these experiences with helping her find a job after graduation.

After finishing school, Julie began working at the North Dakota Department of Health. She served as the Lead Foodborne and Enteric Disease Epidemiologist, while also monitoring zoonotic disease and performing syndromic surveillance. After six years in that role, she moved to serving as the Program Manager for Foodborne and Enteric Illnesses, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, and Hepatitis C, where she supervised nine field and surveillance epidemiologists. After serving in that role for five years, she switched to her current role as a Licensed Environmental Health Professional in the Division of Food and Lodging. This part of the Department of Health manages the State Retail Food Program, which helps to ensure that inspections and safety checks are taking place in many different areas of industry, but especially the food industry. This helps to make sure that the food supply is safe for both the consumers and the people working in the industry.

Julie’s advice for aspiring scientists includes keeping up with current events in the field and keeping up with technology. She adds that grades are important, but are not the only factor that potential employers look for. They are looking for employees that are resilient and resourceful and able to problem solve.

When she isn’t working, Julie enjoys gardening and being outdoors. She grows a variety of natural, pesticide-free vegetables, herbs, and berries. She has three kids who keep her and her husband busy. She also enjoys taking art classes, mostly in painting. She is an accomplished musician and played oboe in the Gold Star Marching Band during her time at NDSU.

Julie’s whole family enjoys cooking in the styles of both German and Russian cuisine. She also has a knack for cake decoration, and often makes her children's birthday cakes. Some of the highlights of cake decoration accomplishments include an Iron Man Explosion Cake, a cake shaped like Dora the Explorer (the princess episode), Batman cupcakes, and a cake with the theme of Disney Junior’s Sophia the First.

Julie's favorite microbe is Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

Aaron Lynne, ’00 B.S. (Microbiology) and ’06 Ph.D. (Molecular Pathogenesis)

Dr. Lynne is currently an Assistant Professor and researcher at Sam Houston State University.He studies how the “microbiome associated with human cadavers changes over time while a body decomposes and if this is useful in determining the postmortem interval”…aka he combined Microbial Ecology and Crime to find a niche in forensic science. Aaron is proof that one can do anything with a Microbiology degree.

By Emma Kusick

What are your long-term goals?

“To continue the line of research I am currently working on, which is completely different from anything I have done in the past…At SHSU, we have a forensic human decomposition facility (also known as a body farm).It is a facility where we can take donated human cadavers, place them outside to decompose, and sample them at various time points to determine the microbial community structure of each sample using next generation sequencing.” He is one of few working in this new, exciting and yet challenging field. “We really hope to develop models of decomposition that use microorganisms to accurately determine the postmortem interval which, in turn, would strengthen forensic science and the criminal justice system.”

Did you always want to perform research?

“I originally wanted to go to pharmacy school but after taking a microbiology course, I really became interested in infectious disease and switched majors.” After working as an undergrad in Dr. Lisa Nolan’s Lab (she has moved to Iowa State), Dr. Lynne became interested in research and grad school. “Dr. Nolan really inspired me, piqued my interests in research and convinced me to go to grad school.Once I started conducting research, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Do you have any advice for those of us aspiring to be microbiologist?

“For undergraduates, I would suggest getting involved in research and do so as early as possible.It’s one thing to learn about science from a textbook or lectures, but it is so much more interesting to do science.For me, I was always interested in microbiology and science but didn’t fully appreciate all that it offered until I got into the lab.

“For grad students, hang in there.You will make it.While you will have days where you will want to give up and quit (I had plenty), you will make it through, and it will be worth all the trouble.”

Final Thoughts

“For those who are considering careers in research, especially academia, I would suggest that you find a niche that you can fill that no one or very few people can…Which also leads into not being afraid to switch your research program.I didn’t know anything about forensic science or microbial ecology, but I took the time and was able to learn about it enough and become (somewhat) successful.”

Elliott Welker, '11 B.S. (Microbiology and Biotechnology), '13 M.S. (Microbiology)

By Ellen Buysse

Elliott Welker is practically a VMS elder. After graduating from NDSU with both a bachelor’s and master's degree, he traveled a whopping 150 feet from the south end of Van Es to the north end to pursue a PhD in genomics and bioinformatics in Dr. Nathan Fisher's lab.

When asked exactly what he does, he explained that he’s currently “working alongside the USDA to better understand the effects of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honey bees. Honey bees play a huge role not only for honey, but economically as well, as billions of dollars worth of crops get pollinated solely by honeybees each year.”

He chose to study microbes “because they affect everyone and will always affect everyone. They can save our lives or end them quickly; they are such simple forms of life, yet so complex.” But it’s more than just complexity that drives Elliott to inhabit his lab space for 60 hours a week (including many weekends and holidays). It’s also the mystery; that you can go out and grab a handful of dirt and find tons of never-before-seen microbes.

He does occasionally escape the lab, and when he surfaces, he does things like found the Veterinary & Microbiological Sciences Graduate Student Association, or VMS GSA for short. He is the current GSA president and organizes things like a periodic journal club, the VMS fall picnic, and "meet and greets" with visiting professors. The organization even went to a local high school to talk to science classes about research going on in VMS.

But his research is his primary focus because it will be that important springboard into, what he hopes will be, a career with the USDA, DOE, EPA, or other federal, research agency.

Breanne Steffan, ‘13 B.S. (Microbiology)

Breanne is currently pursuing a PhD (Molecular Pathogenesis) in Dr. Jane Schuh’s lab. Her experiences here at VMS are nothing short of inspirational.

By Rhiannon Dockter, VMS Undergrad

* What course really stuck with you/changed your view of the world?

There isn’t just one course that stuck with me and/or changed my view of the world; however, my experiences as an undergraduate research assistant did have an impact. I started in Dr. Jane Schuh’s lab as the person who took care of the mice and washed the dishes. As time progressed, I was able to become more involved in experiments, and I learned a number of different techniques that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn in class…Working in a lab is akin to being part of a team.
Each aspect is important, even if you are just washing dishes.

* What was your favorite moment or faculty member in the VMS department? Could you share a story about it?

When I was a junior, I was meeting with my advisor, Janice Haggart, and we were discussing my future goals…she never once said that I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do… she helped open doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. This includes discussions about the GraSUS program and an undergraduate research opportunity with ASM that I also have Dr. Schuh to thank for. The VMS department is special in that they are welcoming and encouraging. I am fortunate to have been an undergraduate and now a graduate student in this department.

* What was your most embarrassing or profound experience while working in a science lab or class?

Yet again, it wasn’t really in a class or lab that I had an embarrassing or profound experience, but it involved a fellowship with the GraSUS program that I received my senior year. This program takes undergraduate and graduate students involved in STEM disciplines and sends them to area classrooms. I was assigned to an AP Chemistry classroom because there aren’t many schools in the area that have Microbiology classes and I was minoring in Chemistry… I had a pretty profound experience in the class. There were some students that had a hard time asking questions when they didn’t understand the material, and I was able to connect with them…I even had the added thrill of running into one of the students again just a few weeks ago and finding out that they are doing well and that they remembered that time that I spent in their classroom.

* What is your favorite science related movie or book and why?

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley because it reminds us that as scientists we have a responsibility to conduct research responsibly and carefully. What we do can have an impact on the future world so we must make it a positive impact.

Akshat Sharma, BS '11 (Biotechnology) and MS '13 (Microbiology)

Akshat is currently pursuing a PhD in Dr. Jenny Gumperz's lab in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before this, he completed a Master's in Dr. Jane Schuh's lab.

These are the top five things (in no particular order) that you need to know about Akshat to understand why he is much missed around VMS:

  • He uses words like, “Alas!” and “impecunious," and says things like, "Happy to help, dearest heart!" and in describing his science idol, Dr. Schuh, "She is whip-smart, assertive, and most importantly, so, so, so chic! I want to be her!"
  • If science hadn't called so insistently, he "would have been an actor, or a Henry James scholar at Bryn Mawr!"
  • He might, occasionally, do something unscientist-y like stab himself with "one of the slenderer Sharpies" while labeling tubes and then get banned from using fine-point Sharpies in lab. But then he also wows, with his wit, his literary references, and his dedication to his craft. For example, he describes a typical day as a PhD student in this way: "It usually starts at 5 a.m. I caffeinate, come into lab, set-up/perform experiments. Around 9, I either go to class or I go teach a class. I set up the next day’s experiments in the afternoon or do some data analysis, and head to the gym around 5 or 6.” Except for Fridays, of course. “On Fridays, I’ll go to the Babcock Dairy Store instead of the gym, and treat myself to the University’s homemade ice-cream.”
  • He values friendship, collaboration, and his scientific roots. “Graduate school can be isolating, and is often packed with rather reserved and/or competitive folk. Meredith Irsfeld and I rose above that. We still stay in touch. We talk science, we bicker, we keep each other sane.” And Akshat can schmooze with the best of them. “During the final year of my M.S., Dr. Schuh sent me to the Experimental Biology conference in Boston to present my results. I hobnobbed with some renowned allergists and immunologists who praised my work, made new friends (with whom I am still in touch), and felt so proud of all that I had accomplished. I was also proud that I was there representing VMS! We are Bison. We thunder!”
  • And finally...he's not too much of a Badger to play a little word association game:

Roller coaster or ferris wheel? A: Ferris coaster. How fun would that be?!

Sheldon or Howard? A: Amy Farrah Fowler.

Tumblr or Twitter? A: Twitter. My feed is very profane, but allows me to reach out to eminent scientists.

Shakespeare or Jane Austen? A: Oh, come on, now! Jess! Don't do this to me! Whose Twitter feed would be better, though? Both made epigrammatic statements about life and love. Think about that!

Will do, Akshat! For more from one our favorite VMS sons, check out his essay about the value of tackling a Master's before launching into a PhD program. He also blogs here.