Alumni Profile: Katharine Dickson, BS Biology ’14

Alumna Katharine Dickson chats about her published research and what led to her PhD pursuit at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Photo courtesy of Katharine Dickson.

Name: Katharine Dickson

Mason Degree: BS, Biology 2014

Career Goals: Ideally, I’d like to be a professor, though in the current job market I am also considering spending time in biotech (maybe even starting my own biotech company), investigating patent law and science policy, and consulting as a biology expert.

Favorite Mason Memory: Besides graduation, with “Happy” by Pharrell Williams as the soundtrack? Probably [participating in Mason’s] Biology Research Semester.

Professionally, I’m most proud of…my research publication. Also, right now I’m working on a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship application with a prospective advisor. It looks to be evolving into my dissertation topic.

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The extended COS interview with Katharine Dickson:

I want current students to know

  • Your studies come first, always. Figure out what helps you retain information the best – for example, if you’re a terrible note taker like I was in undergrad then read the textbook, even out loud if you have to. Do everything ahead of time, that way you’ll never fall behind.
  • Your professors are friendly people, most of the time, who are in this job because they want to work with students. Talk to them. Ask questions in class. Ask questions after class. Ask them about their research. Build a rapport with them. If you do, then when you need help someone WILL come through for you. This applies to your grad student TAs and mentors too.
  • You should pay it forward. There will be a day when you are a senior undergrad and viewed by the other undergrad classes as someone who knows what they’re doing. If someone asks you for (reasonable) academic help, I strongly recommend you generously give them a little help.
  • Science is a collaborative enterprise. Get to know the people in it. Make contacts and friends. Some day, you may write papers with these people, learn things through the grapevine, or get a job because they gave you a tip.
  • Discovery requires bravery and confidence, in addition to intelligence. If you’re smart, always know that you’re capable of finding things that others don’t see. Have the courage to put your ideas out there and take the first step into uncharted territory.

We found that you published a research paper as an undergrad. Can you describe some of your research?

I did some pretty diverse research as an undergrad. In graduate school, I’m planning to do evolutionary developmental neurobiology. But the work I did in undergrad was all over the map.

In 2011, I worked with a retired oceanography professor, from the University of Hawaii – Manoa, while he was visiting the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., to create 3D pictures of squid beaks. We posted the images on the Tree of Life web project website. The project makes the Smithsonian’s cephalopod collection more accessible to researchers all over the world.

So the lesson undergrad students can learn from this is that if you want opportunities, you need to do what you can to get to know people; you need to put your name out there, and you need to be bold.
Katharine Dickson

In 2012, I did research, that led to the research paper I contributed to, at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I was the second author on this study. We were investigating the effects of sensitization to nociception (the sensory aspect of pain) on the ability of squid to survive an encounter with a predator. We found that squid who were sensitized to their injuries were more likely to survive the encounter, and this has implications for our knowledge of pain.

In 2013, I participated in the Biology Research Semester. This is a wonderful program that allows a small, select group of students to take a set of classes together two days a week and work on a research project in one of Mason’s laboratories over the course of a semester. I worked on a project, in the lab of Dr. Daniel Cox [a former Mason professor in the Krasnow Institute,] that involved finding microRNA targeted genes involved in determining the shape of neurons.

As a Mason student, how did you find research opportunities?
The process I used to find my research opportunities was a little more haphazard than most. The opportunity I took advantage of in 2011 landed in my lap as the result of a cold call to one of the cephalopod experts at the Smithsonian. I found the 2012 research opportunity because I was a member of a forum dedicated to my research interests. And in 2013, I decided that I really, really wanted to do the Biology Research Semester so I completed my application, sent Dr. Cox — the researcher I wanted to work with — an email about it, and paid him a visit.

So the lesson undergrad students can learn from this is that if you want opportunities, you need to do what you can to get to know people; you need to put your name out there, and you need to be bold.

Are you currently involved in any career, or degree-related, organizations? Were you while at Mason?
I am currently not involved in any professional organizations, but I will undoubtedly be involved in them as soon as my lab pays for a membership. I wasn’t involved in any at Mason either, but everybody does undergrad in the way that works for them. I think it worked out incredibly well for me, because I’m about to go do some amazing things during my PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What’s an interesting fact about you?
I played the cello for nine years, as a kid.