Humans of Sackler, 1 December 2016
Stacie Clark, Molecular Microbiology, Third-Year Student: “Full of Surprises”
For this issue of Humans of Sackler, I had the chance to chat with Stacie Clark from the Microbiology program. As someone who mostly socializes within Neuroscience, it’s a real privilege for me to meet students from other programs and learn about some of the incredible, borderline-science-fiction work that’s going on right under my nose here at Sackler! Equally striking, I’ve found, is the treasure trove of unique passions and fascinating life experiences that lie just below the surface of our fellow students when we really get to talking. I’m grateful to Stacie for sharing a few of hers, and hope that you, dear reader, enjoy our conversation!
AH: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in science?
SC: My parents told me they always knew I’d end up in science. From the moment I could walk, I was outside digging for beetles and worms and building terrariums. I was in the honors science program in high school, and I did a year-long project on hand sanitizer and bacterial survival. I was working in a lab as a high school student, and realized I really liked doing that. I think I was born for science, and my parents were super-supportive. When I was growing up, we went hiking all the time, they took us to the EcoTarium in Worcester, and we were members at the Museum of Science and Aquarium. So I was always exposed to all sorts of science.
AH: What places have you traveled to outside of Massachusetts?
SC: I studied abroad in Puerto Rico. Worcester Polytechnic Institute does this differently: they call it the IQP, Interactive Qualifying Project. The point of this project is to teach you how to work effectively in groups and communicate with people outside the university. I worked in the rainforest in Puerto Rico, and we did a project evaluating stream crossings. We wanted to look at how their bridges were affecting stream flow and water quality, so we got to hike all through the [El Yunque] rainforest and evaluate all these different stream crossings. We got to see parts of the rainforest that no one gets to see!
AH: What did you do between graduating from WPI and starting your Ph.D. at Sackler?
SC: Before I started grad school, I had always wanted to work with exotic animals. So I literally just Googled ‘volunteer experience in Costa Rica’ and this small remote place in Costa Rica popped up. I booked a two-week trip, went by myself back-packing in Costa Rica, and volunteered at an animal rehabilitation center. It was quite an adjustment: I was on a mountainside in southern Costa Rica, and it got pitch-black at 6 o’clock at night. I would go into the rehabilitation center, clean the cages, prep all the food, and then feed and play with the animals. The monkeys were my favorite, and there was also an anteater. His name was Gomer; if you went into his cage and just yelled out ‘Hey Gomer!’ he’d come crawling out, and he loved being held. We’d do enrichment activities for some of them too – so with the anteater, I would walk with him out in the jungle and let him go searching for termites and ants on his own, and then I’d go bring him back to his cage. I think everyone should go on at least one trip by themselves, because you learn a lot about yourself and it’s just a good experience!
AH: What do you like to do when you’re not working in the lab?
SC: I volunteer at the animal shelter in Quincy; I’ve been doing that every Monday for four years. I take the dogs out for walks, play with them, cuddle with them if they want to… They only get to go outside twice a day, that’s the only time they get to really play with people. I understand that work-life balance is really important to your mental health, so volunteering on Mondays is the one thing that I won’t let grad school take away from me. It’s something that I do for me that I enjoy – and I’m also a big dog person.
AH: There are so many disciplines within biology – what got you interested in studying bacteria specifically?
SC: I’ve always been fascinated that an organism so small can have such a large impact on humans – that still blows my mind! They’re incredible organisms that can mimic the proteins we have, which I find pretty amazing. We’re full of bacteria, they do a lot for us – and the microbiota is a huge field now. Everyone is fascinated in studying microbiota and the impact they have on our health in general.
AH: What particular species of bacteria do you study, and what makes it so interesting?
SC: Yersinia pseudotuberculosis is a model pathogen that we use to study community behavior of bacteria within its host. Yersinia can establish a distinct niche within the spleen of a mouse, and once it forms a microcolony, it can replicate to high numbers despite the presence of the immune system. You get a recruitment of innate immune cells to the site of infection, triggering a response in the bacteria to create specialized populations within that distinct cluster; I always thought that was cool, the response between the bacteria and the host cells.