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Grad finds dream job in Mayo lab

| Judy Berthiaume

What do Blugolds get from working alongside their professors on meaningful research projects? A dream job, says one recent UW-Eau Claire graduate.

Kari Carothers — a first-generation college student who graduated in May with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology — is living her dream by working in the clinical genome sequencing laboratory at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“I've always wanted to be a scientist of some sort, and I'm extremely excited to be working in the field of genetics,” says Carothers, a native of Durand. “I’m working in a cutting-edge field that gives people answers to important health questions. Genetics is truly my passion in life: I think we have so much to learn from this field, and I’m now in a position that allows me to work with human DNA and the genetic code.”

While her job is complex, in its simplest form, Carothers studies DNA to determine if someone has cancer or other diseases.

“I've always had an interest in genetics so when I learned that this was a position in a genetic sequencing lab at Mayo Clinic, I knew I had to apply,” Carothers says of her first post-college job. “Genetics is one of the last frontiers in science; we still have so much more to learn about it. I think that is why it interests me so much. Now I work in an amazing lab with a great organization.”

Eventually, Carothers plans to go to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology or genetics, and then pursue a career researching the genetic basis of cancer.

As a woman and a scientist, Carothers hopes her success will encourage other girls with a passion for science to pursue their own dreams.

“Don't be intimidated by a field dominated by men; you can do it just as well as them,” Carothers says of her advice to young girls. “Science is an amazing thing, and we need more women in the field. You can do anything that you put your mind to so follow your dreams — they are attainable.”

She credits UW-Eau Claire with giving her the skills, knowledge and confidence she needed to successfully enter the science field. Her experiences in and outside the classroom prepared her well to be successful working in a lab at the world renowned Mayo Clinic.

Research opportunities were especially meaningful, partly because the work was challenging but also because she worked alongside faculty mentors who value both being scholars and teachers.

 “I worked in Dr. Derek Gingerich's lab, where I got to do genetic research on plants,” Carothers says. “This opportunity opened so many doors to me. It taught me what real research is about, and gave me a chance to work in the amazing field of genetics. This was my first chance to work in a real lab and it showed me how much I love it.”

Carothers was among the students who worked with Gingerich, an associate professor of biology, on a plant light response study funded by a large multi-year grant from the National Science Foundation grant. Their work has important implications for agriculture.

Gingerich says these kinds of projects give students a chance to decide if research is something they want to pursue as a career or in graduate school.

The real-world projects also help students better understand how to handle adversity and keep a project moving even if they experience a setback, he says.

While engaging in the research itself was important to her learning, having Gingerich as a research mentor also had a tremendous impact on her success as a student and now as a professional scientist, Carothers says.

“Dr. Gingerich took the time to teach me about the research we were doing and about how scientific research works,” Carothers says. “He taught me that fast results aren't always good results, and that I should always take my time and do my best work. He even took me and the other members of our lab to a plant biology conference in Minneapolis after graduation so that we could present our work to others in the field and learn about other work being done.”

Other UW-Eau Claire professors also took the time to get to know her and support her as she worked to become a better student and more educated person, Carothers says.

While she brought her love of science with her to UW-Eau Claire, it was UW-Eau Claire that helped her discover another passion — travel. As a student, she participated in an international research project that took her to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands for several weeks.

“That was the first time I’d ever even been on an airplane,” Carothers says of her travels as a student researcher. “It was the best experience of my entire life. I’m forever grateful that I got to go on this life-changing trip, and I’ve been itching ever since to travel again.”


Photo caption: Dr. Derek Gingerich, associate professor of biology, working with graduate Kari Carothers and student Luke Helminiak.