When Washington State University doctoral student Kaitlin Witherell was a child, she frequently went to work with her scientist mother. Through her young eyes and vivid imagination, she watched her mother complete complex calculations that filled entire pages, make exotic and colorful solutions, and use alien-like equipment that seemed more magical than practical.
Witherell learned this magical world was science, and it eventually cultivated her interest in microbiology. That curiosity would lead her to exploring innovative antimicrobial solutions at Washington State University.
In high school, her passion for science first came to fruition in an extensive project on the microorganisms that survive by oxidizing the iron of the Titanic.
Witherell earned a microbiology bachelor’s from the University of California, Davis, where she fell in love with its community of shared knowledge and support. And, while a supportive community would be a factor in her choice of graduate school, another benefit cemented her decision.
“I was interested in the Immunology and Infectious Disease program at WSU,” Witherell says. “I visited the Pullman campus for my interview, and everyone was so nice, supportive, and willing to help.” After she learned she’d received an Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) award, Witherell chose WSU, where she’s studying microbiology in Douglas Call’s laboratory in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. Molecular epidemiologist Call is also her advisor.
The Seattle Chapter of ARCS Foundation sustains a strong partnership with Washington State University and the University of Washington, and they support 157 scholars from both universities. It’s been 20 years since ARCS began funding graduate research at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Now the awards support 53 fellowships across four colleges at WSU in perpetuity through endowed doctoral fellowships.
When Witherell started her graduate program at WSU, she was stunned to realize how much she didn’t know. Fortunately, her “imposter syndrome” dissipated as she went to work in a field she loves.
“My experiments were going very well, and I was getting mountains of good data I could present at symposiums and conferences.” Simultaneously, she found encouragement through another source. “It helped that I had an entire team behind me,” says Witherell, “encouraging me to work hard and push through my confidence issues. Bruce and Joanne Montgomery, my ARCS supporters, are wonderful, generous people and made me realize I deserve to be here. I hope to pay their good work forward by supporting other young scientists when I have the means to do so.”
In the Call laboratory, Witherell works on a collaborative project with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center involving antimicrobial peptides. These antimicrobial peptides, called knottins, are produced as a natural defense mechanism in organisms, such as plants, sea snails, venomous snakes, and scorpions. The researchers from Fred Hutch contacted the Call lab because they had found a way to produce synthetic knottins called optides.
“I am fortunate to work with Dr. Call,” Witherell says, “and this project is perfect for me. I’m passionate about my research, because I see how it can lead to creating new antibiotics to save lives. I can make a difference in the world. Plus, I enjoy the work so much it doesn’t feel like work.”
The Call lab’s library of potential antimicrobials has already identified several optides effective at killing a variety of multidrug-resistant bacteria. Witherell’s role involves finding which optides are most effective by themselves, which have synergy with extant antibiotics, and how optides kill bacteria.
Through her experience in the Call lab, Witherell secured an internship at Blaze Bioscience, Inc., in Seattle. Blaze is a partner with Fred Hutch and owns the rights to the optide project. “Blaze is a small company,” she says. “So I frequently worked at Fred Hutch, which had the equipment I needed and enabled me to create some of the antimicrobial peptides I’d been researching.”
After earning her doctorate, Witherell plans to seek a career in industry or government. “My objectives might change,” she says, “but I will go wherever the science takes me.”