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EHS Alum Kristen Gibson, PhD '10, Shares Her Journey from Student to Faculty

Kristen Gibson, PhD

Kristen Gibson is an Assistant Professor of Molecular Food Safety Microbiology in the Department of Food Science at the University of Arkansas. In 2010, she earned her PhD from the School of Public Health in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), with a focus on Environmental Health Engineering. While a doctoral student in EHS, Kristen’s research focused on the concentration and molecular detection and characterization of human enteric viruses in various water sources as well as in foodstuffs implicated in foodborne disease outbreaks. Her thesis work involved investigating human and animal enteric viruses in the water environment by optimizing and applying advanced sampling and molecular detection methods that may be used for microbial source tracking.

I am not looking to be a “superstar”. I want my research to have an impact on the broader public health issues and policies as a whole.

As a postdoctoral associate in the Center for Food Safety at the University of Arkansas, she investigated the removal of human norovirus surrogates from food contact surfaces using various cleaning cloths; the environmental impact and food safety aspects of on-farm poultry processing as compared to mobile processing units; the movement of microbial contamination in retail food service environments; and isolation of Campylobacter-specific bacteriophage from pastured poultry with potential application for control of Campylobacter in poultry. Kristen also led a year-long study at swim beaches within a drinking water reservoir, to investigate the potential exposure of recreational users to human pathogens by utilizing both viral and bacterial indicators of fecal pollution.

Today, Dr. Gibson continues her research on the fate and transport of pathogens within our food systems with a focus on human noroviruses and fresh produce and retail food safety.

Dr. Gibson answers a few questions about her ongoing research, her experience at the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and her journey from student to faculty.

Q: Describe your career path.

A: I love this story, and I love telling this story because I think it is a good example of how career paths may change. I began my undergraduate at Auburn University then transferred to the University of Central Florida in Orlando before my sophomore year. I transfered because UCF offered a molecular biology and microbiology degree program that I felt was essential for getting into medical school—my ultimate goal. While at UCF, I wanted to gain experience working in a clinical microbiology laboratory, or something similar, so I got involved with the cooperative education program and ended up with a part-time position in the Microbiology laboratory at Orange County Water Utilities. This is the point when I realized that there was way more to protecting public health than at the “disease stage” – the quality of water, air, food…all very important to public health. When I graduated in 2002, my mentor at the time provided me with a list of names of researchers around the world that she was willing to call on my behalf, so I could either get a job or start graduate school. The very first name on the list was Dr. Kellogg Schwab, Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. My mentor called Kellogg. He needed a lab technician, and I needed a job. So I packed up and moved to Baltimore. After a little more than three years as Kellogg’s lab technician, I applied to the PhD program in EHS so I could earn my degree and become faculty one day. I waivered between faculty, R&D positions in industry and working for the CDC or a NGO, but ultimately, I just really love the academic environment.

Q: As faculty, what do you see in your current students that you once saw in yourself as a young researcher?

A: Currently, I have three master’s students, and they are all very different. One common thread is getting them to think critically about the research they are doing and how it connects to the “big picture” of public health. I think outside of institutions like Johns Hopkins, the public health aspect of why we do research can get lost easily, so I incorporate the core principles of public health (just a little shout out to Dr. Tom Burke) in how I train and prepare my students. Sometimes as a young researcher,  you can get ahead of yourself and not think through your hypothesis or the experiments you have designed to test your hypothesis; so overall, getting graduate students to think critically, communicate effectively, and read, read, read is the most important thing, and I believe this was a major part of my PhD training as well.

Q: How did you become interested in teaching?

A: I have always loved to interact with students in the classroom setting, and I had some very good professors in both undergraduate and graduate school that inspired me to want to teach in higher education institutions. During my time at Hopkins, I was a teaching assistant in three courses, and I enjoyed it, though it could be challenging at times. Currently, I am teaching a Food Science Orientation course aimed at recruiting freshman to the Food Science program which can be tough because they really have quite a bit of “maturing” left to do! I will also start teaching my graduate class in Fall 2014 which is “Epidemiological Methods in Food Safety and Public Health.” I am really excited about this new course as I think I will be introducing a piece of Hopkins to graduate students at the University of Arkansas.

Q: Sometimes the most challenging aspects of a job are also the most fulfilling. What are some of those aspects for you?

A: Because my faculty appointment is predominantly research, I would have to say that this is the most fulfilling aspect. I work really hard to obtain funding for projects and research that I believe in so it is really rewarding when my ideas (both individual and collaborative in scope) get recognized as worthy of supporting!  In addition, I have to support my staff and students so funding is a must!  I think most research faculty around the U.S. can sympathize with this…the funding environment at this time is just very difficult, so you must be creative and do more integrated research that may not be exactly what your primary expertise is.

Q: What advice would you offer to current EHS students interested in teaching?

A: I would say get as much teaching experience as possible. There are opportunities at community colleges to teach one class per semester or even be a guest lecturer in undergraduate classes. Try to take some curriculum development or education courses since we are not trained to be teachers and thus simply rely on the style of teaching we have been exposed to throughout the years.

Q: What is the most important thing you learned during your time at JHSPH in EHS?

A: This is a difficult question to answer. I think the most important thing I learned is how to be a good mentor for my students. Kellogg was especially inspiring to work for, and I would not be where I am today without him. Second to that, I learned how to be a good researcher with respect to experimental design and research integrity.

Q: Where do you see yourself and/or your research in the next 10 years? How do you think your research will help to shape policy in the food industry?

A: This is a hard question! I think I was asked something similar during my faculty interview process. I hope to continue working on better ways to control the spread of norovirus within food settings, which include targeted education of food safety managers and food service employees, as well as more effective cleaning regimens. In addition, I have been actively involved in local food systems and farmers market type venues with respect to increasing both vendor and consumer awareness of potential food safety issues. Last, I hope to continue to build collaborations with researchers in unrelated fields (i.e. nanomaterial design, biological engineering) to further the application of pathogen-specific bacteriophage as tools for controlling pathogens in our food systems. Overall, my main goal is have a sustainable research program that will provide training opportunities for aspiring researchers…I am not looking to be a “superstar,” but rather, I want my research to have an impact on the broader public health issues and policies as a whole.

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