For a PDF version of this interview, please click HERE
Kayla Davis: OSP Co-Founder and Editor, and a PhD Student in Biological & Biomedical Sciences at Harvard University.
Written and Edited by F.D. Rogers, M.A.
Kayla Davis didn’t know that she could, or would, grow up to be a scientist. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a medical doctor, but only because I didn't know that I could be a scientist!” says Davis.
Kayla Davis is a PhD Student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. Her journey to study at Harvard started in her hometown of Stillwater, OK in the Stillwater Public School system. “Starting in the 8th grade, I became very interested in chemistry. This love for chemistry continued until I was introduced to genetics in 10th grade biology.” That introduction was made by Joan McKeever, Davis’ 10th grade biology teacher. McKeever took her biology class (including Davis) to a conference for high school students interested in medical genetics. “I was fascinated by the future prospects of medical genetics and never looked back,” says Davis.
For her undergraduate education, Davis pursued her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry with a minor in Chemistry at Oklahoma State University. “I chose biochemistry because it combined my interests in chemistry and biology and offered many courses in molecular biology, which fit with my interests in the genetic basis of disease at the time,” says Davis.
She decided to attend Oklahoma State University, also in her hometown of Stillwater, because it was affordable and offered her scholarships (thanks to a good GPA and ACT scores). Her final decision was made when Oklahoma State offered her the Freshman Research Scholarship, an award that pays first year undergraduates to conduct laboratory research, something that Davis had already been doing during the summer after her Junior and Senior years at Stillwater High.
“When I was a kid I wanted to be a medical doctor, but only because I didn't know that I could be a scientist!”
Davis continued to find ways to pay for her undergraduate education with research. In addition to her Freshman Research Scholarship, she earned two additional, competitive scholarships to continue her undergraduate research: the Niblack Research Scholarship and the Lew Wentz Research Scholarship. She also found support from the Osage Nation and the OK-LSAMP program, a program that supports minority students pursuing education in STEM fields.
At Oklahoma State, Davis conducted research under the mentorship of Dr. Rita Miller. In Dr. Miller’s lab, she worked on studies examining how posttranslational modifications of proteins involved in cellular division contribute to cell division outcomes as well as how these modifications potentially contribute to disease pathology.
Davis’ search for research opportunities went beyond Oklahoma State. She completed a summer research internship at Johns Hopkins University with Dr. Karen Beemon; and she also completed the Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program (or SHURP) at Harvard Medical School, where she worked with Dr. Wade Harper. The research experience and letters of recommendation that came with these internships went a long way in securing Davis a position in the graduate program in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Harvard.
“I learned many things from my time as an undergraduate researcher. Everything from how to maintain a professional relationship as a researcher in a lab environment to how to conduct bench experiments, keep a scientific notebook, read scientific literature, and ask novel scientific questions,” says Davis.
A Day in the Lab
As a PhD student, Davis maintains a flexible schedule; she does some course work, but the most of her time is spent in the laboratory doing research. In an average day, she might plan experiments, conduct those experiments in the lab, and analyze the results of those experiments. Another important part of her work is writing and developing research presentations in order to communicate the results of her experiments to other researchers.
The broader field that Davis studies is called “neurobiology”, which is a scientific field aimed at understanding the biology of the nervous system. The nervous system is a subset of the body (including things like nerve cells and fibres) that communicates information (or transmits signals) from one part of the body to another. It coordinates outcomes like the beat of a heart, learning, and behavior.
The specific area of neurobiology that Davis studies is called neuronal cell biology. Her focus is on the transport of mitochondria in the nucleus of neurons. In her own words:
“Mitochondria are essential for the proper function of neurons and are needed to supply energy and buffer calcium. Neurons can be very long, reaching lengths of up to 1 meter, this presents a unique challenge for the neuronal cell to transport essential organelles like mitochondria and cellular components like proteins to the correct location over the span of great distances. It is known that both damaged mitochondria and lack of mitochondria contribute to neuronal diseases. My work aims to better understand how mitochondrial transport is regulated. Outcomes of this work could lead to a better understanding of how mitochondria contribute to diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer’s Disease which have known links to impaired mitochondrial function.”
For more information on the research Kayla Davis is doing, check out the lab of her mentor, Tom Schwarz: http://www.schwarzlab.org/index.html
For more information on undergraduate research opportunities at Oklahoma State University, check out: https://scholardevelopment.okstate.edu/
© Oklahoma Science Project: http://okscienceproject.org/