Why I do Science

Kathleen Ryan Headshot

There was no specific “aha” moment for my love of science; I grew up with an equal interest in STEM and the humanities. As an undergraduate, I majored in history of science at Harvard. Then I went on to an MD/PhD program at Johns Hopkins University and got my PhD in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. When it was time to finish my clinical training for the MD, however, I realized I didn’t enjoy the medical environment. It was a pretty late discovery, but I was lucky to be able to correct my course.

One thing that drew me to science early on was an interesting property of living systems: the fact that cells as small as bacteria are highly organized and many of their component parts reside in specific subcellular locations. When I first learned that, it blew me away, and I wanted to know how bacteria do that.

I’m fascinated by getting the bacterium to answer targeted questions. Generally, my experiments consist of asking, “How do you do that thing?” But the bacterium can usually only answer yes or no, so I have to be very clever in how I structure my questions. So I’ll formulate a hypothesis and say, “I think you do it like this.” Then the bacterium says yes (which is awesome but less frequent) or no (which is a bummer but more frequent). If the answer is no, I have to come up with another hypothesis and an experiment to test it, until the bacterium finally says, “Yes, that’s how I do it! Glad you finally guessed right!”

My proudest moments have come from being a teacher and mentor. When my students reach their goals, like getting into graduate school or achieving tenure, I’m thrilled for them.

Kathleen Ryan is an associate professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. Her lab explores bacterial cell structure, regulation, and antibiotic resistance.