Kaitlin Witherell

By Ruth Williams

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Kaitlin Witherell, a doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at WSU, was destined to become a scientist. When she was young, she frequently went to work with her mother, who is also a scientist. As Kaitlin grew older, so did her interest in microbiology. In high school she conducted an extensive project on the micro-organisms that live off the oxidation of the Titanic.

“I’d been sitting in the lab for 12 hours one day, and realized that I wasn’t sick of studying it yet,” says Kaitlin. “That was when I realized how much I liked it!”

After high school, Kaitlin continued her studies at University of California Davis, where she fell in love with the community of shared knowledge and support. When she began looking for a graduate program, she found the perfect fit at WSU.

“While looking at graduate schools, I came across the Immunology and Infectious Disease program at WSU,” says Kaitlin. “When I visited WSU Pullman for my interview, everyone was so nice and willing to help. I felt a very warm sense of community here, and that really solidified my decision to apply.”

Why WSU?

Another factor in her decision to come to WSU was the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) program, which contributes to the advancement of science and technology by funding doctoral fellowships.

“I was wavering between several schools until I found out I had an ARCS Fellowship,” says Kaitlin. “I knew I couldn’t turn down that kind of opportunity.”

The Seattle Chapter of the ARCS Foundation has a strategic partnership with Washington State University and the University of Washington, and is supporting 157 fellows from both universities this year. Fifty-two of these fellowships are supported in perpetuity by named endowments.

“My sponsors, Bruce and Joanne Montgomery, are wonderful people,” says Kaitlin. “I have met with them a few times during site visits and when I was in Seattle. I really appreciate being able to share my successes with them. Knowing that I have such great, kind, and successful people in my corner is really nice, and I hope to stay in touch with them even after leaving the ARCS program.”

About Her Research

Kaitlin’s faculty advisor is Dr. Douglas Call, professor of molecular epidemiology in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. In his laboratory, she is working on a collaborative project with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) on antimicrobial peptides.

These small antimicrobial peptides, called knottins, are a relatively untapped market for new antimicrobials. They are produced in organisms like sea snails, venomous snakes, and scorpions as a natural defense mechanism.

Fred Hutch contacted her lab because they had found a way to produce these antimicrobial knottins synthetically. They call these artificial knottins “optides”. The significance of this is that her lab now has access to a library of untapped, potential antimicrobials. They have already found several optides that are effective against a variety of multi-drug resistant bacteria. With more optides on the way, the lab is confident they will find many more effective optides in the next few months. Kaitlin’s part in this is to find out which ones are most effective by themselves, which optides have synergy with extant antibiotics, and discover how optides are killing bacteria.

“I feel so fortunate to be working with Dr. Call because it feels like this project is perfect for me,” says Kaitlin. “I’m so passionate about my research because I can see how it may lead to creating new antibiotics which will save lives. It feels like I can make a difference in the world. Plus, I enjoy the work so much it doesn’t even feel like work anymore.”

Through her work in Dr. Call’s lab, Kaitlin was able to complete an internship at Blaze Bioscience, Inc. in Seattle this summer. Blaze is a Fred Hutch partner and owns the rights to the optide project.

“Blaze is a small company, so I would frequently work at Fred Hutch because they had the equipment I needed, and while there I was able to make some of the microbial peptides I’ve been researching. It was really cool to be able to see that side of my research in person.”

After WSU

Kaitlin is surprised at how much she’s grown since coming to WSU.

“When I first came to WSU, I was shocked at how much I didn’t know. It feels like everyone who is in a Ph.D. program is the best of the best, and at first it felt like I did not deserve to be here. It took a lot of work to build up my self-confidence, especially about my dissertation project.”

After graduating, Kaitlin would like to go into industry or a government position.

“Most likely my objectives will change to go wherever the science takes me, but that is my current plan,” she says. Kaitlin graduates in Spring 2020.