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Dr. Aretha Fiebig - A Career of Creativity

While the arts and sciences have large differences, the fields share remarkable similarities. Artists and scientists endure a similar creative process, finding inspiration in unexpected places, working in fits and bursts, and finally creating something new. Raised in a community of artists, much of Dr. Aretha Fiebig’s scientific mindset was developed by observing the creative process around her. Seeing these parallels, Aretha developed a non-traditional career path and now enjoys creative, flexible, scientific artistry as a research associate professor.

“In many ways, my world today is very different from when I was a child...”. Having grown up in a community of people who learned their trades as apprentices rather than in formal academic settings, “…the world of higher education was foreign to me.”  Living in the inner city, the nearby abundance of brick, concrete, and pavement were not particularly inspirational. However, she still fueled her curiosity about the natural world by exploring nearby empty lots with their weedy mulberry trees, milkweeds, chicory flowers, and Queen Anne’s lace. Nearby hillsides and creek beds rich in fossils were another source of inspiration and wonder.

Her interests in the sciences, along with her desire for an intimate educational experience pulled her to pursue biology and chemistry at Earlham College, a small liberal arts college in Indiana. In her first year of the program, an academic advisor’s presumption that Aretha would attend graduate school opened her eyes to the possibility of an advanced degree and a career in research “I didn’t hear the rest of what he said…this path really wasn’t on my radar before that conversation.” The liberal arts college offered her both depth and breadth in her studies, with a range of courses from ecology and ornithology to molecular biology and genetics. Later in her undergraduate studies, she gained research experience, becoming enamored with the pursuit of answering unanswered questions. Simultaneously, she took on beneficial extracurricular activities, living and studying in Africa for 4 months, a time in which she met Dr. Sean Crosson, whom she later married.

Upon concluding her undergraduate degree, Aretha applied to and earned a spot in a PhD program at University of Chicago alongside Crosson, learning to “think like a geneticist” as she studied the evolution of proteins on the surface of pollen that are important for plant reproduction. She further expanded her horizons as a postdoc at Stanford University, where she studied genome organization in Vibrio cholerae, an intriguing topic at the time as the bacterium’s genome is divided into two chromosomes. This research earned her exposure to and greater interest in the microbial sciences.

She later returned to the University of Chicago to establish a lab with Crosson.  Starting as a research professor, this non-traditional position gave her the flexibility to pursue a range of problems, often in the fun and challenging position of piloting new project ideas to test their feasibility.  One of these projects started out “simple” but has since expanded to become a focal point in her research. Initially working to understand the physiological role of a light-sensing protein in a freshwater bacterium, she uncovered important connections to bacterial stress responses and regulation of surface attachment. Today, she focuses largely on understanding the myriad of environmental factors that determine when bacteria stick to surfaces in communities or swim independently.  Efforts to answer a once “simple” question have revealed the complexity of this developmental decision ‘to stick or not to stick’.  The outcome has critical implications for the fitness of the bacterium, as there are important tradeoffs for each state.

Recently, she and Sean felt inspired to move their scientific pursuits to Michigan State University.  “[MMG] has tremendous breadth and expertise…scientifically, it is a great fit”.  Moving her studies from  neighborhood lots to research labs around the country, Aretha’s research has become her own creative endeavor.  She’s found her inspiration in unexpected places, developed spontaneous and thriving projects, and uncovered new knowledge along the way. With a strong, broad background and an engaging and supportive departmental environment, we look forward to creativity that Dr. Fiebig and her colleagues will bring with them as they settle into MSU.


By Rachael Stohlin