Microbiology graduate to pursue advanced degree in bioterrorism and biodefense
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.
When Megan Davis of Phoenix transferred to Arizona State University, she knew she wanted to change her major. But what she didn’t expect was to find a degree she’s certain will support any professional direction she pursues.
Davis discovered her passion for microbiology after taking her first course. Her professor’s enthusiasm for the field was contagious, and it was then she realized she had found the right field. She was determined to pursue her specific research interests and accomplished her goal by networking and creating her own internship opportunity with a local crime lab.
Davis said ASU has provided her with exactly the learning opportunities she hoped for.
“I chose ASU because I wanted to attend a college known for its research and innovation in science,” said Davis. “The vastness of degrees in the School of Life Sciences alone was extremely appealing to me. ASU provides so many outlets for making this dream come true, that I wouldn’t have thought of going anywhere else.”
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: After doing research and making the switch I soon discovered this degree can have incredibly vast world applications; everything from food and water regulation services to working with NASA, to the developing field of bioterrorism defense. The freedom of it all seemed incredible. My spark of interest was brought to life during the first microbiology course where I saw how passionate my professor, Cheryl Nickerson, was while she taught. She is one of the scientists whose research regularly gets launched on NASA’s spaceflights, which is fascinating to me. It showed me a wide range of what is possible, and this was the moment I realized I wanted to run with this degree.
Q: What is your greatest accomplishment during your college career?
A: My greatest accomplishment during my college career was getting to work in the Arizona Department of Public Safety scientific analysis bureau crime lab for my internship, performing research in controlled substances and getting to present my research to the head member of each department. This research involved testing drug detection limits with spectroscopy instruments for officers in the field and forensic scientists in the laboratory. This was something I never realized I could do until I pursued the idea. I became proactive in my own search for an internship, networked with people, and made connections that allowed me to get the position even when the applications were publicly closed.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: One of the most surprising things I learned while at ASU was in my MIC 494 Host-Microbe Interaction course. I realized that just because something is published in a scientific journal, even one that’s well known, doesn’t always mean the information is correct. This might seem like an odd revelation, but it meant many things for me. First, it took away a layer of reliability placed on others. As young undergraduate students, I think many of us believe, “If it’s in the literature it’s fact,” but scientific findings don’t typically end in fact. This is why theories are developed. Learning this helped me understand that to come to my own conclusions I must critically study the way research is done even if it means meticulously analyzing methods. Once I realized this it allowed me to feel empowered to do research of my own and helped me understand the world of scientific literature much better.
Q: What is one of your favorite memories while attending ASU?
A: Some of my favorite memories while attending ASU were getting to work in the Biodesign Institute, touring the Vivarium and finding friends in my major. These facilities were fascinating to see research in action and opened my eyes to the intricacies of what can be done in master’s programs. As for making friends, I feel like there aren’t many students majoring in microbiology so finding friends in my major provides such a great support system. Also, we get to make nerdy bacteria jokes to each other.
Q: What were one or two of your challenges while attending college, and how did you overcome them?
A: Two of my biggest challenges in college were trying to motivate myself and to eat on a normal time schedule. In order to overcome this, I found inspiration in others by reading about people with jobs that sounded like something I would be passionate about. This gave me something to work towards if I needed to realign myself with my goals. Sometimes I get so caught up in work that I eat late in the day so to combat this I set timers on my phone for lunch and dinner and make sure to eat even if I don’t feel hungry at the moment. I definitely thanked myself later for it!
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: I think one of the most important lessons I learned while at ASU was during an elective course called Outdoor Survival. My professor, Scott Kozakiewicz, always said, “Life is full of assets and liabilities. It is up to you how you deal with them, and how you turn those liabilities into assets.” It makes sense for outdoor survival, but I find that it’s also applicable to so many other life aspects. Things that might seem like failures can develop your character and provide you with wisdom for your next approach in future endeavors.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: The best advice I can give to those still in school who don’t know exactly what they want to do is to get into their fields of interest! For me, I was interested in many and in order to determine what I wanted to do before graduating, I tested the waters in each area of interest. This can be done by getting a job, interning and/or volunteering in those fields. It’s a bonus if you can get those experiences to count for credit, too. For example, I was interested in the veterinary medicine field for a while and decided to work at an animal hospital for a few months as a result. I was also interested in forensics and so I interned in a crime lab. The real-world experiences are so incredibly valuable, even if the fields you explore aren’t where you end up, they still look great on a resume and help you personally learn so much.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: In Tempe, I like to sit under the trees in the grassy area next to Hayden Library during good weather, but for studying, getting work done, and meeting friends I prefer the space downstairs below the food court in the MU building. It has tables with outlets and lounge areas where you can play pool or ping-pong. It’s also conveniently right below all the restaurants, and the lunchtime bustle helps me focus when I study, as crazy as it sounds! At the West campus, the library is hands-down the best place to go.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: After graduation, I plan to work on my master's in biotechnology with a specialization in bioterrorism and biodefense, while working at the Department of Public Safety, where I interned.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: If I was awarded $40 million to solve a single problem, I think I would try to tackle sustainability issues to perform research on potential microbes that can combat the effects of microplastics on ecosystems. There has been a lot of new research on these topics and I would definitely love to get the opportunity to be a part of it.