Name: Caitlin Pepperell
Hometown: Toronto, Canada
Zodiac Sign: Aries
The overarching goal of Dr. Pepperell’s research is to understand how bacteria adapt to the pathogenic niche. They seek to identify mechanisms of novel pathogen emergence, delineate how bacterial populations are structured, discover the genetic basis of traits such as tissue invasion and drug resistance in addition to addressing other aspects of pathoadaptation. They use a range of approaches to these questions including experimental evolution and analyses of genomic and phenotypic data from natural populations. Specific examples of tools we use include evolve and re-sequence experiments for bacteria passaged under defined selective pressures, genome-wide association studies, and phenotypic characterization using advanced microscopy and other techniques. Much of Dr. Pepperell’s work focuses on biofilms, structured communities that are central to bacterial adaptation. They work with diverse bacterial species that are illustrative of the multiplicity of adaptive paths to virulence. While the central focus of the lab is bacterial adaptation, they complement this work with studies of disease ecology and the human genetic basis of susceptibility to infectious diseases.
What inspired you to select your field of study?
I got interested in infectious diseases after spending a summer as a medical student working in an HIV clinic. The clinic was run by a remarkable couple who offered holistic, patient-centered care in several settings, including local prisons. This was at the advent of effective drug treatment and we were privileged to see people recover from what had previously been a death sentence.
That experience also gave me my first taste of research. Later on, I found my footing as a researcher when a mentor gave me a dataset and said “what do you make of this?” This question led me into the field of population genetics and to my training as an evolutionary biologist.
What is one piece of advice you would give to students?
Science is hard work and challenging in myriad ways, but at its essence it should be a joyful pursuit. Look for mentors, opportunities and environments that make you excited about the pursuit of new knowledge.
When you’re not in the lab, how do you spend your time?
In nature, as much as possible. I am an avid paddler. Much of my time is devoted to my family and we enjoy outdoor activities as a family.
What is the best meal you’ve ever had?
That is a tie between a fiery Cambodian coconut soup from a little restaurant near where I went to school, a phyllo ricotta and lemon pastry I had in Naples, and a fresh artichoke and Meyer lemon risotto that I made.