Alysia Kohlbrand graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2019 with double majors in Chemistry and Neuroscience.
This interview is part of a series conducted by the department called, "UK Chemistry Alumni: Where Are They Now." This interview was coordinated by Dr. Arthur Cammers.
Alysia, what are you up to these days after graduating with double Bachelor of Science majors in Chemistry and Neuroscience?
I am currently pursuing a doctorate degree in chemistry at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). I joined the lab of Dr. Seth Cohen, studying metal binding interactions of metalloenzymes implicated in disease, such as influenza endonuclease and HIV integrase.
When I was at your stage, the future wasn't on my mind too much; I was lost in the study of science. Do you currently have a focused goal or are you enjoying the learning process and seeing where it leads you?
The dream would be to start my own research group at a medium sized university, but I am keeping my mind open to other opportunities seeing where life takes me. Working at a national lab or agency such as the CDC or NIH would also be interesting.
I hope you weren't terribly impacted by covid-19 in your switch to graduate school. What was that like? The transition is quite frankly intimidating enough without a pandemic hanging over head. Did the virus delay your plans? Did you have to take a gap year or gap semester?
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on my switch to graduate school and has set my studies back at least 6 months to a year. UCSD was shutdown 2 weeks after I had officially joined the Cohen lab for 4 months. Upon our return, we were only allowed in the lab at 30% occupancy which meant we each only had an average of 3 days a week in lab for another 3/4 months. It really hurt my confidence as a scientist and dulled my sparkle. It did, however, help me to grow and realize you need your project for when things are going well, and your labmates and friends when it isn’t. Whenever my tank was empty they always gassed me up. We have recently gone back to 100% occupancy and my research progress has increased exponentially. I am hoping to have my first paper published at the end of this summer!
What drew you to chemistry? Did you decide in high school or did you settle on a major program at the freshman or sophomore level at UK? What flipped the switch for you, and when did it flip? Why did you decide to double major? Do you recommend that route?
My mom was the chemistry department manager at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). I was a very quiet kid and after school care was torture so I ended up spending most afternoons with my mom in the chemistry department as a “helper” during outreach activities and doing odd jobs like sorting glassware. I was able to convince a few faculty members and their students to help me with my 5th grade science fair project, “Is Your Money Dirty?” and I thought it would be a slam-dunk winner. They taught me how to grow cultures from swabbed dollar bills, use a microscope, and to identify common microorganisms. When the big day came, I glued my petri dishes containing common molds and fungi produced from swabbing the paper money to my poster. Not surprisingly, the poster smelled awful and when I explained the origin of the smell to the judges, the poster was promptly thrown in our school’s dumpsters. I was disqualified from my 5th grade science fair and I’ve been seeking revenge ever since. The sting of this loss would prove to be the ultimate spark of inspiration for my future career. I’ve attached pictures of pip-squeak me working on my fifth grade science fair project, they’re pretty cute.
Chemistry has always been my dream, but as a freshman I was exposed to so many different fields of science I hadn’t considered. I took a class called "ways of doing biology” as a requirement for the STEM cats program and Dr. Geddes from the neuroscience department came to talk about his research on traumatic brain injury and mentioned he would be teaching an introductory neuroscience class in the spring. I took his class and was sold on neuroscience. I picked up a few more neuroscience classes or fun and out of curiosity, and most of the requirements for neuroscience overlapped with chemistry so I was able to get the extra degree in neuroscience in the end. I definitely recommend taking classes that interest you even if they are outside of your major, for me they added a lot of excitement and often something outside of my comfort zone that helped me grow as a student.
Was there a specific class or part of your study at UK that really impacted your development as a scientist or really shifted your worldview?
Joining the group of Drs Phoebe Glazer and David Heidary did the most for my development as a scientist as an undergraduate. I learned a lot of lab techniques and skills, but more importantly they taught me how to be independent, confident, and fearless. Today I can confidently use instruments that are delicate or expensive with respect instead of fear of breaking them or messing up. I can ask for help without the fear that people will look down on me. I can confidently research a topic and question or alter my own research directions. I can stand up for myself and my research and accept criticism without crumbling under pressure. These skills I am very grateful to have developed during my time in the Glazer group and even though I have left UK, they are still always there to help me when I need them.
A specific set of classes that really impacted my development as a scientist were Dr. Selegue’s inorganic lab and Dr. Watson’s advanced organic synthesis lab. These labs applied a lot of concepts from chemistry classes I had taken and gave me a lot of freedom in planning my own syntheses, carrying out the experiment, and the characterization of products. The first time I had gone from planning on paper to finished product was in Dr. Selegue’s inorganic lab. Getting the first NMRs and IR back and seeing I had actually synthesized my target compound, and that it was clean is a high I will never forget.
We all remember you fondly. You really got involved with the department as an ACS ChemCat. Could you reflect and comment on how this leadership experience here impacted what you did next in chemistry?
I loved my involvement with ACS ChemCats and the department, the experiences I gained did a lot to shape my soft skills like teamwork, event planning, email etiquette, and seminar etiquette. My time as a ChemCat also helped me to give back effort that was poured into me at a young age to inspire the next generation of scientists the way I was inspired through organizing outreach events.
My time as ChemCats president inspired me to continue my journey serving in student organizations and into a leadership role of our chemistry graduate student council (CGSC) and I am now the youngest chair since the council’s inception as a second year PhD student.
If it was legal 😉, what did you do in Lexington for fun? Student-life balance is as important as work-life balance in the career. Survival is the name of the game.
Peace in the trees! The Kentucky Native Cafe on Maxwell is were I would go to take a breather and just relax. The cafe is attached to a greenhouse and nestled in lots of big leafy trees and greenery. I also volunteered for Green Forests Work, a non profit organization run by Dr. Chris Barton at UK. The goal of the organization is to reforest areas devastated by mining or logging.