Mentors: Bridget Barker, assistant professor; Heather Mead, PMI
An undergraduate with a passion for infectious disease research
Kaitlyn Parra aspires to a career in research. And what’s most important for her is seeing that infectious disease research can directly impact patients in a positive way.
“All of this is life-changing,” Parra said. “I really wanted to go into medicine. And now that I’m here at NAU, I couldn’t envision doing anything else. I couldn’t envision not working with infectious disease.”
Parra, a junior, is a Microbiology major with a minor in Chemistry. She is currently working closely with biological sciences assistant professor Bridget Barker on a Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) research project studying Valley Fever in dogs. Valley Fever, coccidioidomycosis, is a fungal infection that starts in the lungs and is found mainly in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. One part of the study is looking at how different breeds are affected by Valley Fever.
Barker’s lab asked dog owners to participate in a Valley Fever survey. Using a saliva kit, provided by the lab, dog owners swabbed their dogs’ mouths and returned the samples back to the lab. Parra then extracted the DNA; she broke open the isolated cell and cleaned and preserved the DNA. Parra explains that around 30 percent of the dogs where Valley Fever is found get sick with the disease.
“But when you look at specific breeds, that is not the case,” she said. “Certain breeds are a lot lower, certain breeds are a lot higher.”
So far, the team has received about 2,700 survey responses, but are hoping to reach 10,000 responses. When she looked at survey data, Parra found four breeds with significantly different numbers of infection rates; boxers, golden retrievers, and Yorkshire terriers had higher infection rates, while Chihuahuas had lower infection rates. Klaire Laux, a PhD student in the Barker Lab, will continue to look at DNA samples to determine why some breeds get Valley Fever more than other breeds.
A team of mentors helping her define her aspirations
The team at PMI has been integral to Parra’s growth as a student and researcher. Barker’s mentorship goes back years—she gave Parra the opportunity to start with PMI’s partner institution, TGen North, in high school—and has since helped Parra develop her research skills.
Parra also credits the support of PMI associate director Dawn Birdsell for assisting her in further clarifying her career path, including bringing in guest speakers with deep insight into the field.
“We just had someone from the CDC talk to us about their research,” Parra said. “It’s just amazing to see how much effort Dr. Birdsell puts in to support us as undergrads and ensure that we’re succeeding.”
Her supervisor, PMI graduate assistant Heather Mead, guided her in learning lab skills, but has also been invaluable in providing encouragement when she runs into roadblocks in her work.
For Parra, the support she receives from her mentors and her experiences at PMI have helped solidify her commitment to research. “Even in those really frustrating days,” Parra said. “I’m still happy that I’m working here. And that’s how I know I’m in the right place.”