Q&A with graduate student Brittany Genera

Graduate student Brittany Genera is researching how a common tick-borne pathogen uses special proteins to manipulate host cells to survive and replicate. Brittany is pursuing a doctorate in Biomedical Sciences – Immunology and Infectious Diseases, a research-intensive program designed to train students in immunology, host-pathogen interactions, and population biology of bacterial, parasitic, and viral infectious diseases in animals and humans. She is working under the mentorship of Drs. Kelly Brayton and Jason Park, two leading researchers in the field of vector-borne diseases.

Brittany recently took some time to answer questions about her research and experiences at WSU.

What are you researching at WSU?

My research focuses on the tick-borne pathogen Anaplasma phagocytophilum, the second most prevalent tick-borne pathogen in North America. This bacterium causes human granulocytic anaplasmosis, which typically exhibits mild symptoms but can progress to respiratory distress and organ failure. Anaplasma secretes molecules called effector proteins into host cells which manipulate cellular processes to facilitate bacterial survival and replication during infection. Our lab has identified the very first tick-specific effector protein of A. phagocytophilum named AteA (Anaplasma phagocytophilum tick effector A), which I am characterizing to determine how it manipulates host cells and ultimately understand its role during infection.

Why did you decide to complete your doctorate at WSU?

I earned my undergraduate degree from Oregon State University in entomology, with a focus on vector-borne diseases, particularly those related to ticks. Washington State University stood out to me as one of the few universities dedicated to the study of tick-borne diseases and it is renowned for its research in this field. Following my interview weekend at WSU, I felt immediately welcomed by students and faculty alike and knew this was the ideal place for me to explore my interests and be successful.

What has been your favorite thing about WSU?

What I love most about WSU is the strong sense of community among the graduate students and faculty. It’s a place where everyone knows each other, and help is always available whether it be for personal or professional reasons. There have been countless times when I needed help with a technique or experiment, and I’ve been able to reach out to any student or faculty for assistance. I also greatly appreciate that there is no animosity between upper and lower graduate students or between students and faculty. Everyone is equally respected and supported.

What about WSU has surprised you the most?

What has surprised me most about WSU has been the university’s global recognition. I had no idea of the extensive range and impact of research conducted at WSU. Within my department alone, we have collaborators in multiple countries, and we are leaders in our specific research field. It’s always amazing to see WSU’s research making headlines and meeting people who are already familiar with both my research and the work of fellow students at national and international conferences. It makes me proud to be part of WSU, knowing that our efforts genuinely make a meaningful impact.

How have your mentors helped you?                          

I have been extremely fortunate to have the absolute best mentors at WSU. Their endless support has been invaluable throughout my graduate school career, and they have consistently created an environment where I never feel inferior or doubtful of my abilities. I struggle with anxiety-based learning challenges, and they have gone above and beyond to provide every accommodation necessary for my success. I am comfortable approaching them with any concerns and we have a very open and honest mentor/mentee relationship. One of my favorite aspects of my mentors is that I never fear making mistakes because they turn each moment into a learning process, furthering my growth as a scientist.

What do you hope to do after graduate school?

After completing graduate school, I would like to re-enter industry. I worked in industry previously at a startup in Eugene, Oregon (fun fact: one of the co-founders is a WSU alumna!), and I loved the freedom and creativity that a startup company offers. Additionally, I recently did an internship at Roche Diagnostics in Santa Clara, California, which reaffirmed my desire to return to industry. I am a very hands-on person so I would prefer a position within the lab rather than a managerial role.