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Erin McKenney, MS, PhD

Lecturer, Department of Applied Ecology, NC State University

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You don't have to wait to go to graduate school, or have a fancy lab: you can do real science, today!

What do you do?

I study the microbial communities in guts, sourdough, and other fermented foods. I use DNA sequencing to identify which types of bacteria live in different places, and I also measure how they digest the nutrients in food (especially sugar, starch, or fiber) to create vitamins and acids that our bodies can use for energy.

I also spend a lot of time creating activities and learning materials, to engage students and share my research with the public.

Why did you choose this field?

Microbes are everywhere, and they are tied up in everything we do. I wanted to be a veterinarian from age 4-24, so I spent a lot of time shadowing vets, assisting surgeries, etc. I didn't get into vet school, but I did land an internship at Disney's Animal Kingdom – so after I graduated from college, I moved to Orlando to learn about all the different animals at Disney and how to meet their nutritional needs. I was already interested in foods and guts, and microbiology was one of my favorite classes in college. When my research mentor (Dr. Katie Sullivan) had me read a paper about how gut microbes enable herbivores to digest their fiber-rich diets... that was it for me! I decided right then that I needed to go to graduate school to learn more about gut microbes. One month into my Master's, I knew I wanted to go for a PhD. There was no looking back.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Microbiome research is still fairly new – most of the technology I now use for DNA sequencing, was first released in 2010. So I don't think about achievements, so much as my change in perspective. I wish I had known, earlier, how many more career options – and subjects in science – there are, than the limited paths we are exposed to as children. Now, as an educator and a mentor, I try to make a point of talking about all the different career paths that are available.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love learning about the world, finding out what we don't know yet, and turning research into stories to share and empower others.

Best advice for next generation?

The world is your oyster! You already have the critical thinking skills that you need to be a scientist, and there are so many opportunities to get involved in research projects. You don't have to wait to go to graduate school, or have a fancy lab: you can do real science, today! You can join a public science project or help analyze data online – or create your own experiment at home. (For example, you can visit the Sourdough for Science project page to learn how you can grow and study your own microbial community – and bake with it!)

Inspo quote / fun fact

My hobbies include blacksmithing and watercolor.