Interviews with Scientists: Kylie Heitman

Interviews with Scientists: Kylie Heitman
2 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Kylie Heitman

In the next in our Interviews with Scientists series we spoke with Kylie Heitman, a PhD student at the University of Alabama Birmingham, USA. 

As a fourth year biomedical student, Kylie studies skeletal muscle atrophy, and skeletal muscle derived FGF23 production in the context of Chronic Kidney Disease and hyperphosphatemia. She grew up in Holland, Michigan before attending Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Albion, MI. Within the first week of her freshman year, she switched from a business major to a biology major, and as she developed her scientific knowledge, her interest in research grew accordingly. While at Albion she participated in two research projects: one in the lab of Dr. Craig Streu investigating drug targets for ALK5, and another in the lab of Dr. Bradley Rabquer where she designed and carried out her own hypothesis and protocol testing the use of lavender aromatherapy to relieve stress in trailered horses, which was later published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Medicine. In the lab she is a keen mentor, and especially enjoys immunofluorescent microscopy work. 

We spoke to Kylie about her PhD research, her advice on applying for funding, and the lack of leadership roles for women in STEM…


Thanks for speaking with us, Kylie! Please can you tell us a little bit about your current role at the University of Alabama at Birmingham?

My current role at University of Alabama at Birmingham is just a regular shmegular PhD graduate student! I'm just finishing my 4th year in my program, and I'm suspiciously enjoying it a great deal… so much so that I tell my friends I could do another PhD after! (I will not do that, however!)


What is the focus of your PhD research?

My PhD research looks at the pathologies commonly associated with chronic kidney disease and how they're influenced or regulated by Fibroblast Growth Factor (FGF) 23 and phosphate. More specifically, I study skeletal muscle atrophy as CKD patients suffer from some form of skeletal muscle impairments, and how phosphate will signal to the cells to influence that atrophying effect.


Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?

The reason I'm a scientist is because of my interest in animals and especially horses while growing up. My dad is a small animal veterinarian, and I would run around the clinic with my yellow stool so I could sit high enough to see my dad perform animal surgeries - it was my favorite activity. Furthermore, I am one of those weird horse girls and am so fortunate to have been able to grow up in a barn where I saw many joint supplements, skin supplements, hoof supplements, vitamins, electrolytes being advertised to improve the health of a horse, and that made me so interested in how these things work (or don't work). Ultimately, this concept is what inspired a research project that I carried out as an undergraduate and published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Medicine. It was my undergraduate research that led me to a PhD, but it was my experience with animals from a young age that ultimately provided the extreme curiosity.


What excites you most about the work that you do?

When it comes to the work I do, I am the most excited about finding an effect that makes you scratch your head and think "that's weird" because it can lead to an investigation of something that a few people may know about. I also get excited about travelling to conferences to meet with other researchers in my field, and mentoring students at the bench.


You recently received funding from the NIDDK - what impact will this have on your research?

My funding from the NIDDK will not impact my day-to-day research activity. I'm fortunate that my lab is well funded - however, it does mean I will be able to attend 1-2 more conferences which opens up doors for me to network and collaborate with other scientists.


What advice would you give to a scientist applying for funding for the first time?

Regarding a trainee's application: remember your application will be scored as 33% the research, 33% the mentor, 33% the student. I scored the lowest on the research section, but I communicated that I have potential and my mentor has a strong record of successful students, which allowed me to receive a fundable score. When it comes to the research, your figures should showcase 50-70% of the techniques proposed in your research section - i.e. if you propose to carry out qPCR, western blots, staining, CRISPR to show/measure your effect, then make sure your figures reflect that you successfully perform those techniques, even if the sample size is small. It was also helpful to tell myself that 1 in 10 grants get funded, so I set low expectations, and was prepared to submit a grant 9 more times before I started thinking "am I a bad scientist?".


Women remain underrepresented in all fields of STEM. What more do you think could be done to improve the gender balance in science?

This is so interesting, because (to my understanding) more women are getting STEM-related PhDs than men, or it's at least increasing from what it used to be. However, this is not reflective at the leadership level. Women, and especially women of color are underrepresented at a leadership level in STEM for a variety of reasons, but some of which I've heard through talking with friends is the organizational support for women and their families, and other employees' bias towards women and their families. Often, women's careers are stunted when they decide to have a family. One thing we can do to support the growth of women in STEM leadership positions is to incentivize women to create start-up companies, and that requires a heck of a lot of mentorship.


Who has been your greatest role model, and why?

My sister Kristen is probably one of my greatest role models because she has a broad range of emotional intelligence and loads of self-discipline when it comes to her health, financial responsibility, and organizational skills.


What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?

An important lesson I've learned is that there is tremendous power in using the proper positive and negative controls and to set up your experiments the day before to ensure you have all the reagents in stock before you begin. Furthermore, a shocking lesson I learned within the first 4 months of grad school is discovering that science is 50% political; at first, it was disappointing to know that you can't rely on the data speaking for itself, but it's about the story you frame your data, and the audience that you're showing your data to.


How do you see your career developing in the future/where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I will be in the process of transitioning out of the bench and into the role of a PI who writes grants, reads literature, and directs a research team.


Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most? (e.g. hobbies, passion projects, etc.)

I make sure to stay extra busy: I love riding my horse - I wake up early before I go into the lab so I can ride her. I have found great fulfillment in traveling now the pandemic has chilled out, too. Lastly, playing board games (especially Settlers of Catan) with my friends, and running with my local running group, Alchemy Run Crew.  


What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery/invention of all time?

I think the greatest invention is cloning (vectors, plasmids, etc.) to express a protein of interest. The system is so simple, but incredibly powerful for biochemists and cell signaling experts.


What’s your favourite science quote or science joke?

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'eureka!' but 'that's funny...'" - Isaac Asimov 

Also, this meme:


Is there anything else you would like to tell us, eg. specific issues or initiatives in science that you are involved with or are passionate about?

If this isn't already obvious, I'm really excited about women being in leadership positions and working wholeheartedly on a science-related, translational topic that has the potential to influence the lifespan or health of people.


Thank you so much for chatting with us Kylie. We wish you all the best with your PhD!

Connect with Kylie:


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