Taken from ASBMB’s monthly research newsletter: The Monthly Digest (Mar. 2021, Issue 3).
Written by Priscilla Cho
Logan Kavanaugh, MSC (she/her) is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Program at Emory University in the Department of Biochemistry. As a member of the Conn Lab, she uses interdisciplinary approaches (e.g., computational biology, structural biology, biochemistry, and microbiology) to identify new targets for the therapeutic development of novel antibiotics against disease-causing bacteria. Out of high school, Logan was accepted into the biology/pre-med program at the University of Arizona – a dream come true for a first-generation college student. But an unforeseen death in the family and the financial burden of being an out-of-state student became too much and she withdrew after her 1st year. After moving back home to North Carolina, Logan worked as a bartender for four years before deciding to return to college once again in 2013. During her time at a local community college, she took a microbiology class and her passion for microbes was clinched! In 2015, Logan joined The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and was admitted into the Honor’s Program. As an undergraduate researcher, she investigated antibiotic usage patterns and resistance in cystic fibrosis patients. After graduating with her bachelor’s in biology in 2017, she obtained her master’s in bioinformatics investigating large genomic variations related to antibiotic resistance in clinical bacterial isolates. Before coming to Emory University, Logan worked as a research associate for the North Carolina research campus. This non-traditional background is what inspires her to be involved in science outreach and to help inform younger students of higher education possibilities. At Emory University, she is the vice president of the Graduate Division Student Advisory Council, a member of the Emory Science Advocacy Network, and an active mentor to undergraduates in the first-generation, low-income partnership and The Association of Women in Science.
Writer Priscilla Cho sat down to talk with Logan about her current research experience and journey.
How did you first know you were interested in science? How did you decide on biology as your major?
Before I went to college, science was actually not under my radar, I ended up taking this microbiology class during my first two years in undergrad, and that really set my path on science. I really liked my other science classes, but I think I did not feel a true passion for science until my microbiology class. Ever since then, it’s grown the more I learn, and now I enjoy a lot of different areas of science. One inspirational teacher in one class really set my path. I wanted to go to medical school initially in college. My school had very broad bachelor’s degrees, so getting a bachelor’s degree in microbiology was not an option for me. So, I chose biology to be on the pre-med path.
Can you introduce the research you are doing in more detail?
The lab I work in is a biochemistry lab. I am a member of the microbiology Ph.D. program. Our lab in general focuses on therapeutic development, whether it’s antibiotic or antiviral. I work on the antibiotic side of our lab. I am really interested in antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria. Bacteria have these pumps that pump out antibiotics. That’s what makes the bacteria resistant to the antibiotic, and my current project is to use biochemistry and structural biology approaches to develop inhibitors that could block that efflux pump function. I am looking at ways we can generate new small molecules that could be used in the clinic with already existing antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is a public health crisis. It’s growing the more that we use antibiotics, especially in agriculture. It’s going to be a problem way more than it already is now. I enjoy the research I do because I see it as building the foundation to potentially address these problems we are going to see in the public health realm.
How do you think the Conn Lab is impacting Emory’s School of Medicine?
I think we do some really cool things. In science, most people distinguish between basic science and translational medicine, and both are very important. I think a lot of people don’t realize that translational medicine builds on that basic science. You really need the basic science to even be able to start doing the translational stuff. With basic science, I think understanding exactly how molecules interact with proteins and how structure dominates function is important. In the biochemistry department, we focus on the structure-function relationship, and it really builds a foundation for other science to progress once you know that structure.
How is research different for you now than it was before the pandemic?
It’s changed quite a bit. In the graduate program in the microbiology department, we do rotations our first year. You spend 8 weeks in each lab you have chosen for the rotations before choosing a lab to do your thesis in. That was my first year. I joined the conn lab a month after the pandemic started. I had 8 weeks of experience during rotations, and that’s really the only experience I had in my lab, not during the pandemic. The beginning was a little challenging because we were not able to come into the lab for the first 2 or 3 months. It was nice because I was just starting my project. It gave me time to really read the literature and get a good grasp of what the foundations of my project would be, time that you would not normally get. This was quite beneficial. But then, we had limited capacity in the lab after that. This gets you in the right headspace to learn how to manage your time and plan out experiments in the best way possible to maximize your amount of time in the lab. It was nice because it felt really streamlined because I knew exactly what I was going to do that day. You might not get as much done as you would like to, and it really does slow the progress of your thesis. It depends on the year of the program you are in too.
How did you choose to work in the Conn Lab?
I chose the Conn Lab as one of the labs for my rotations because i had no experience in biochemistry or techniques related to biochemistry. I thought it would be a great place to learn a new technique for 8 weeks. I ended up falling in love with the lab and joining. I also chose this lab based on past experience with doing my masters. The research that the lab did was a small factor. It should also be a happy environment. I got along really well with the graduate students in the lab. Dr. Conn is a good mentor for me. I think mentorship style is a huge factor when deciding on the lab you want to be in. I experienced a variety of mentor personalities in my rotations, and i picked the one that i thought best fit me for where i am right now in my science. Dr. Conn is very supportive, and he is also a great writer. Grant writing was something I really wanted to get better at. I knew that he had a really good success rate with his grants, and he also teaches the grant writing class that we all take. The lab environment, the projects, the mentor’s style, and people all kind of came together in a good way.
What motivates you as a researcher?
I really love doing research. I was initially set to be on the pre-med track in college. I got into the honors program at my university. As part of the honors program at my university, they require you to do undergraduate research. Once I was doing research, I decided that I did not want to go to med school because I really liked doing the research. There are always questions that can be asked for every experiment I do, like “Why did that happen?”, “What can I study next?”, and “Why would that happen when I did this assay and not this assay?” I really like the inquisitive nature that research allows you to have, and the lab that you are in can provide you the tools to pursue your main project and other side projects you may be interested in. I like the hands-on nature of being in the research lab. You can also positively affect people with the research you do.
If you were not studying biology right now, what other subject would you be studying and why?
I really like sewing, and all my downtime TV clothing shows or sewing shows. I would like to be a costume designer. I think that would be my secret passion.
Do you have any plans after your Ph.D. program?
I will probably pursue a postdoctoral degree. Whether it’s in industry or in academia, I don’t really have a preference, and I don’t know quite yet where I am heading. I do really enjoy mentoring and talking about science, so I think that part I would like to keep in whatever position I take.
Do you have any advice for undergraduates (general or research related)?
Take breaks and be easy on yourself. Grades are important, but they are not everything. A lot of other factors go into the decision-making process for graduate school and medical school applications. Take advantage of networking, especially in this zoom world to make connections. If your major is undecided, it’s okay. Find a class that makes you happy, and follow your path there. Let your interests guide you!