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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Q&A with 2023 L’Oréal USA For Women in Science winner Caitlin Kowalski GR’20

One writer talks with Caitlin Kowalski, Guarini ’20, about her research on skin fungi and her reflections on mentorship and women in STEM.

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This November, Caitlin Kowalski GR’20 won a $60,000 award from the 2023 L’Oréal USA Women in Science program for her research studying how fungi can impact our health. The program, which has provided more than $5 million dollars in grants since its inception 20 years ago, grants awards annually to five female postdoctoral researchers. In her work, Kowalski specifically aims to understand how fungi that live on human skin protect against pathogens and skin infections. The Dartmouth spoke with Kowalski to discuss her research interests, reflections on the award and goals for the future.

Have you always been interested in fungi? 

CK: I was working on my Ph.D from 2014 to 2020, and I went in knowing I wanted to do microbiology. I really like pandemic apocalypse stories like “Contagion,” so that’s what spurred my interest in microbiology. I thought I would work on bacteria, but at Dartmouth, I found a lab that was studying a fungal pathogen called aspergillus, a mold that we all breathe in every day, but most of us are fine.

I fell in love with fungi. Instead of thinking about fungi as a bad thing, I wanted to try to think about it as something that helps our health. For my postdoctoral research, I’m studying the fungi that live on our skin, and how they actually help us and improve our health. There’s really only one type of fungi on our skin, which has traits that allow it to live there, but we know almost nothing about it.

What impact do you hope the product of your research will have on others, and what do you feel is important for people to know about it? 

CK: One thing I’m always saying when I’m talking to scientists at seminars is, ‘What about the fungi?’ Fungi are often ignored in a lot of health settings, especially when we think about the microbiome. We should be considering these organisms and how they are contributing to our health, and how we can kind of help maintain a healthy microbiome.

My postdoctoral research has found that the skin fungi are making something that can kill the bacterial pathogen called staph aureus, which causes staph infections. Normally, people will carry this pathogen in their noses — about a third of people have it. It doesn’t hurt us, but it’s a big risk factor for contaminating other parts of our body: It doesn’t really grow well on healthy skin until you get a wound. It’s really important to keep staph off of the skin, and it seems like this fungi on our skin could be making something that kills it.

What was the process of applying to the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science award like? What was your experience when receiving the award?

CK: The L’Oréal award is really unique in that the money is to fund your own research. This gives me the opportunity to do experiments that I really wanted to do that were outside the scope of what my lab does currently. The award also has a huge component for outreach, specifically part of the money goes to providing mentorship to young women in a STEM, whether that's in your direct community or in a larger sense.

I did not think I would get it when I applied. I actually thought that applying would give me a chance to think about new ideas because I had to write a proposal about my work. So I wrote it, submitted it and then just moved on. 

Then this summer I got a phone call, which I thought was a spam phone call, they left me a voicemail, and it was a woman from L’Oréal. When they told me that I was selected I just could not believe it.

How does it feel to be a role model for the younger generation of women in science? 

CK: I mentor two young women that are undergrads at the University of Oregon. They have been working with me for a little over a year now, and it’s honestly the best part of my work day. We have so much fun working together. Through the award, I’m really excited to have the opportunity to give back to the young women at the University of Oregon because they’ve given me so much. 

People say that adult women need to be role models for young women, right? But really it’s important for women to be role models to everyone in STEM. We want women, men and everyone to grow up with the idea that women make strong, successful scientists. Hopefully, it’ll become clearer and clearer that women are just as good at science as men. 

In the L’Oréal video, you said women need to take opportunities and not hold ourselves back, would you elaborate on that?

CK: When I thought about the award, I didn’t think I was going to get it, but I applied anyway. I really believe that you shouldn’t be the one to tell yourself no. Don’t count yourself out if you want something. What does it hurt to apply, right? If someone else doesn’t think you’re a good fit, let them tell you that. Don’t take the opportunity away from yourself before it exists. Men do that much less than women do, and I think getting over that hurdle for women, including myself, will really help us to see more women in these kinds of awards or leadership positions because we’re not going to get the awards or the positions if we don’t apply for them in the first place. 

Is there anything else you want the readers to know, any closing remarks? 

CK: I think that science is better when we do it with other people. It’s not just a scientist in a room all alone. Even though people keep interviewing me about this award, it’s not just me. This whole project has had the support of my current lab; even my two undergraduate students have contributed directly to the work that I wrote for this project. I’m just the face of a much larger team that has really helped me get here and directly contributed to the project.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.