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Kati Ford - A Desire to Improve the World

With large cohorts of graduate students, we in the Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics admit a variety of learners into our labs and classrooms each year, leading us to encounter the eccentric, the earnest, and everything in between. Among our driven and genuine students is Kati (Kathryne) Ford. Devoting numerous hours to thoughtful experiments and stellar grades, Kati has been a shining member of our department. Then, earlier this year, we received word that she received one of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowships, one of a small few MMG students to win the GRFP in recent decades. These fellowships, which cover full tuition for graduate students, are prestigious and extraordinary accomplishments, tagging Kati as a promising graduate researcher and scientist. Hearing of this accomplishment, we touched base with Kati to learn about her path to the fellowship award and her advice for students that follow in her footsteps.

Kati’s path to microbiology and the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) started as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. Heading into her new student orientation, Kati had an interest in biology, expecting that her career would aim toward human biology or medicine. By chance, Kati’s advisor was out sick, so MMG undergraduate advisor Dr. Scott Mulrooney filled in on Kati’s orientation day. After some skillful persuasion from Mulrooney, Kati ditched her medical pursuits and settled into MMG’s undergraduate program after her first few classes. Also entering Michigan State University as a part of the RISE (Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment) program, her interests turned toward environmental protection and she joined MMG’s new Environmental Microbiology program. Kati was the only person to graduate with that degree in her class.

Finishing her degree ahead of schedule, she devoted some time to working as a lab technician in Dr. Matt Schrenk’s geomicrobiology lab. Thinking about her next steps, Kati thought about a variety of graduate school options, though she knew that MSU housed some of the top researchers in environmental and ecological microbiology. With that fact came a strong sense that she’d be staying in East Lansing, and her academic and extracurricular success did yield Katie admission into the program. Searching for a lab that offered experience with microbes and environmental science, Kati found her place in the lab of Dr. Michaela TerAvest (BMB). The TerAvest lab works with Shewanella oneidensis, a microbe capable of using electricity to power chemical reactions. Channeling her environmental interest, Kati seeks to bioengineer this microbe to use carbon dioxide as a building block in hopes that this microbe can convert carbon dioxide with electricity into a carbon-neutral biofuel.

This exciting project is what led Kati to the GRFP. After repeated cycles of writing, editing, and peer feedback, Kati submitted a proposal based around her research project. News broke of Kati's award soon after the university shifted to remote work and learning in March, putting most of the fellowship’s uses on hold. However, because the purpose of the fellowship is to identify promising graduate researchers, the validation of her work and aims to develop more sustainable energy keep her moving forward and optimistic for her future work. When pandemic restrictions pass, the award will allow the TerAvest lab to take on a new graduate student to assist with Kati’s project, and it will also give her opportunities to explore career options as she works on new research in graduate school.

Looking ahead to her future, Kati is making strides toward a career in environmental initiatives, and she is certain that she’ll leave her impression on MMG and where she lands after graduation. “My unique background in policy, activism, and a variety of research settings gives me the ability to better identify areas our department, and our field as a whole, that can be improved.” In addition to her work for the natural environment, she intends on taking on roles to build healthy social environments. “Now more than ever we see the need for researchers to take an active role advocating for science-based policy and against discrimination that still exists within our field. I aim to strengthen our department by advocating for and empowering graduate students and to improve the culture fostered in academia.”

Now reflecting on her education and fellowship award, Kati has advice for the students who apply for scholarships, grants, and fellowships each year. First, most applications weigh heavily on the written portion, and Kati believes her practices in writing contributed to her fellowship success; “My writing style helps me stand out…I’m a big believer in letting your personality show through your writing, making it interesting to read as well as informative”. But, as she notes, independent writing can only help so much. You should bring in your community, too. “Find lots of editors!” Kati says, “I try to have a minimum of 4 people from a variety of backgrounds read over anything important that I write. There are always things that you will miss when you read your own writing over and over, so have lots of outside input.”

Looking forward, Kati plans on developing clean energy that’s affordable, effective, and efficient to bridge the gap between policy and innovation and tackle the issue of climate change. Taking on this large challenge, Kati describes her inspiration as “a desire to improve the world”, showing us that a drive to do good, meaningful work can lead us to great places. Having earned the GRFP early in her graduate education and shown us her capabilities as a Spartan visionary, we know that our world will see a better future because of Kati’s work.


By Rachael Stohlin