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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Hannah Gavin, Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences

Hannah Gavin

Hannah Gavin, a fifth-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences, studies a foodborne bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus in the laboratory of Karla Satchell, PhD, professor of Microbiology – Immunology.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bacteria in the Vibrio genus are responsible for the illness Vibriosis, which causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the United States every year. People with vibriosis are infected after consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater.

Where is your hometown?

Growing up I lived in five different states, so in many ways ‘home’ is wherever my family is located. Geographically speaking, I consider myself North Carolinian. I was born in North Carolina and returned to complete my undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

What are your research interests?

I am interested in all things digestive, perhaps because I like food so much. I’m amazed that our bodies are able to absorb and utilize different nutrients while simultaneously protecting us from food contaminates. I am also excited about microbes and their influence on the world. Even though they are invisible to the naked eye, microbes have a huge role in shaping the health of the planet and its inhabitants.

What exciting research projects are you working on?

Our bodies excel at protecting us from most illnesses, but sometimes microbes still get the best of us. I study a foodborne bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus – a microbial cousin of the bacteria that causes cholera – and a toxin made by these bacteria. In our lab we are trying to understand different functions of the toxin and how these functions make Vibrio vulnificus infections dangerous. Read an article I wrote about Vibrio vulnificus for Discover Magazine here.

What attracted you to the DGP?

In applying to DGP, my attraction was Northwestern’s great research and the umbrella-program structure of the DGP, which meant I was able to try rotations in different labs without being limited by departmental boundaries.

In choosing DGP, it was the people. Faculty and staff here are undoubtedly excellent, but it was actually the character of my interview peers that convinced me Northwestern was the place to be. When it came to decision time, I reasoned that it was pretty important to like the people I would be studying and researching alongside for the next six years. As I’ve faced the inevitable highs and lows of graduate school, I’ve been grateful to my past self for that reasoning, it really helps to be in good company.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

This past spring I presented my research at the Vibrios conference in coastal France. It was my first time traveling to Europe and my first time speaking at a scientific meeting. This experience wasn’t at Feinberg, per se, but it was made possible by my research and support from my department.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

Studying in the department of Microbiology-Immunology, I hold these faculty members in particularly high regard. They expect me to perform thoughtful, rigorous science and over the past four years they have helped me develop the skills and mentality to do just that.

What do you do in your free time?

Chicago is home to an awesome folk music and dance scene. When I’m not working on science-related tasks, I am usually connecting with my Appalachian roots by playing or dancing to fiddle tunes. I also spend time combating my city-derived nature deprivation with community gardening, biking and trips into the wilder parts of the USA.

What are your plans for after graduation?

More science! I’m planning to do postdoctoral research. I’m pretty hooked on microbiology, but I’m looking to move outside of pathogenesis (disease) research to study microbes from anther angle. I am considering a cooperative/beneficial bacterial-host relationship, or the role of microbes in environmental processes. It’s also important to me to find a job that values science communication and outreach, because I enjoy writing and talking about science almost as much as I like doing it. Read some of my work for Helix Magazine here.

Connect with Hannah on LinkedIn