What’s better than having your favorite UW-Eau Claire professors tell you you’ll be a great scientist?
Having the president of the United States tell them they were right about you.
Last spring, alumna Dr. Katie Kindt was recognized by then-President Barack Obama for her outstanding leadership in science.
During a White House celebration, the president presented Kindt with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor given by the U.S. government to science and engineering professionals early in their research careers.
"It was amazing," Kindt says of the honor. "Math and science are hard. And the research is hard, too, at every level. There are definitely rewards when you make discoveries, but to be given that award at the White House was such an honor. It was very gratifying, after all that work, to be acknowledged at that level."
Kindt, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2000 with a degree in biochemistry/molecular biology, knows all about perseverance and its rewards.
Since 2013, she has overseen a lab in the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health. The focus of her lab is on deafness, hearing loss and communication disorders.
"Forty million Americans report some form of hearing loss, whether they were born with the deficit, sustained some sort of noise trauma or have it as a result of aging," Kindt says of the importance of the lab’s work.
Specifically, Kindt and her colleagues study zebra fish as a model system to study hearing and hair cell function, which are the sensory receptors for hearing and balance. Essentially, when hair cells are damaged, hearing loss occurs.
Kindt says that much progress has been made since she began working in this field seven years ago. For example, cochlear implants have been successful, and strides have been made with stem cell implants for hair cell regrowth — a promising future therapy for those with hearing loss.
Kindt, who has always loved science, got her start in research at UW-Eau Claire.
“I saw science as a way to not only understand how the natural world works, but also as a path to discovery — through research,” Kindt says. “At UW-Eau Claire, nearly all of my science professors taught and did research. They set a great example. I thought that I would hate being cooped up in a lab all day, but I knew I needed to at least try it to see, for the sake of discovery. Turns out it was fun, and I became a regular lab rat. I haven’t stopped since.”
During her time at UW-Eau Claire, Kindt, a native of Golden Valley, Minnesota, worked in the research lab of Dr. Scott Bailey-Hartsel, professor of chemistry.
"Dr. Hartsel was the perfect academic adviser and research mentor for me," Kindt says. “As a research mentor, he made science and research fun. By working in the Hartsel lab I learned not only about the challenges and repeated failure that can accompany research, but about celebrating success and having fun along the way.”
Hartsel, she says, introduced her to the concept of lab idols or mascots that bring luck to research and lift morale.
“Related to this spirit, my current lab theme is ‘My little pony, Science is magic,’” Kindt says. “He also proved to be very tolerant of our technicolor research posters. I still cannot believe he let us bring a rainbow-colored poster to an international research conference. My experience in the Hartsel lab has definitely shaped my outlook on research and my lab. “
Kindt also remembers — and appreciates — the enormous support she received from the UW-Eau Claire faculty as a whole.
“The professors gave me a sense of confidence to be whoever I wanted to be,” Kindt says. “They said, ‘Yes, you should go to graduate school; yes, you’ll be a great scientist.’ Having those types of interactions gave me the courage and inspiration to keep going in science and on my path.”
After graduating from UW-Eau Claire, Kindt earned her doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, where she began her hair cell research.
This fall, Kindt returned to the UW-Eau Claire campus to give a research presentation in honor of the 25th anniversary of the biochemistry/molecular biology program.
While UW-Eau Claire's physical transformations in recent years are stunning, what stood out most to Kindt was what hasn't changed.
"Coming back to campus, there are so many amazing changes, but a lot of the really good things are the same," Kindt said. "It's still the same atmosphere as I when I was here. I was talking to faculty and students just dropped in. The faculty always have time for the students and really care about them. I'm so glad that's the same — and to see that the students can still have the experience I had."
What is Kindt’s advice for current or future Blugolds interested in careers in science?
"I'd like to see more women in science,” Kindt says. “Things are getting better, but there are still fewer women than men in science. Out of 14 labs in my section of the NIH, four labs are headed by women, and that's a lot.”
One concern she often hears from women who are contemplating careers in the sciences is that they won't be able to stay in their field while also being good parents, Kindt says.
“It can be done,” Kindt says. “It's hard and you have to work at it, but it's definitely doable. Stay in science!"