Q&A with Kathleen Nicholson

Kathleen Nicholson is a current fellow of the Eck Institute for Global Health (EIGH). She has a BS in Genetics and Biochemistry from Clemson University and she is currently working on her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences in the College of Science at Notre Dame. In this Q&A, Kathleen discusses her current research with the Champion Lab, her favorite classes, and her future aspirations in academia.


Kathleen Nicholson

Q. Why did you choose the Eck Institute of Global Health?

A. I am passionate about global health! My experiences have given me a desire to research infectious diseases that disproportionately impact vulnerable populations. The Eck Institute for Global Health brings together some of the most passionate, dedicated, and talented researchers and communicators to address a wide range of global health issues. I wanted the opportunity to join the EIGH community to learn skills from talented researchers and to obtain a better understanding of the underlying facets of global health that impact a variety of infectious diseases. Most importantly, I was drawn to the Eck Institute because of its belief that health is a fundamental human right.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your area of study. How and when did you first become interested in the field?

A. My area of study focuses on uncovering mechanisms of pathogenesis in Mycobacteria. As a member of the Champion lab, my work is performed through the lens of molecular genetics. I first became interested in genetics in the context of animal agriculture. However, my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis sparked my desire to pursue genetics research in human disease. I went to Clemson University to pursue degrees in Genetics and Biochemistry. As an undergraduate researcher, I worked on a parasite called Trypanosoma brucei, the causative agent of African sleeping sickness. Treatments for T. brucei infections are insufficient and painful for patients, making the identification of novel drug targets a primary research objective. My experience at Clemson inspired me to continue in infectious disease research through a Ph.D. and involvement in the Eck Institute for Global Health at Notre Dame. 

Q. What are you currently working on, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

A. Currently, I am working on pathogenic mycobacteria in Dr. Patricia Champion’s lab. We work on two types of pathogenic mycobacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and Mycobacterium marinum. M. tuberculosis is one of the world’s top infectious killers. M. marinum belongs to a class of mycobacteria called non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM). NTMs cause opportunistic infections in humans and infections caused by NTMs and antibiotic resistance are on the rise. My research is at the host-pathogen interface and focuses on the regulation of mycobacterial genes and proteins in response to the host environment during infection. I hope that this work will improve our understanding of the regulatory underpinnings required for successful mycobacterial infections. By identifying points of regulation required for infection, we may be able to inform the development of novel antibiotics or vaccines against mycobacterial infections.

Q. What is one of your favorite classes and why?

A. I am not sure if I can choose one favorite class! Two of my favorites were Genomics with Dr. Mike Ferdig and Bacterial Communities with Dr. Josh Shrout. Both of these classes helped me to identify “ways of doing science” and “ways of thinking about science.” I think the biggest impact from these classes was helping me discover a flexible framework by which to perform research. When thinking about a problem, I now consider novel ways to use existing resources at my disposal and then consider creative ways to set up experiments to answer my question of interest. It’s a very resourceful, holistic view of science, and I am so grateful that my professors helped me build that kind of perspective.

A. Do you have any plans for the future? If so, what are they?

A. Professionally, my long-term goal is to pursue infectious disease research in academia as a professor. I would like to integrate my skills in molecular biology and genetics with a clinical and translational perspective to identify novel therapeutics. In the near future, I plan to defend my thesis, graduate and begin postdoctoral training.

Q. Can you tell us a fun fact about yourself, or something you enjoy doing in your free time?
A. I grew up on a farm, so that’s definitely my go-to fun fact. It was a bit of a menagerie, but we primarily raised South African Boer Goats. I’ve been involved in that industry since I was 5! My grandparents were in the horse industry, so I grew up riding as well. In my free time, I enjoy weightlifting and cultivating house plants! I’ve found these hobbies to be really rewarding because I can set goals and see progress. They’re a great way to spend some time outside the lab and take care of my physical and mental health.