Hayley Masterson struggled to contain her excitement as she explained the intricacies of the dining habits of ticks.

Her face brightened while she described how the tiny parasite uses its mouthparts to saw into skin before inserting its hypostome, a spear-like organ lined with sharp barbs that allows ticks to anchor into their hosts as they feed.

“I mean that is pretty freaking cool,” the fourth-year Washington State University veterinary student said. “It is so impressive how they take advantage of the things around them – they are very resourceful, very clever.”

Masterson, who grew up in Issaquah, Washington, has a general fascination with parasites and disease-causing microorganisms. While most of her peers wrapping up their final year of veterinary school hope to practice on the more fuzzy and cute animals, she sees herself in a diagnostic laboratory setting after having been accepted into the clinical microbiology residency program at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at WSU.

“You get to still use your veterinary background, but you also get to do a lot of lab work. You get a sample, you don’t really know what is in it, so your job is to figure out what is going on,” Masterson said.

Masterson has dreamed of a career in veterinary medicine since she was a young child when she would spend time on her grandparents’ ranch in Paris, Texas.

“Since I was in second grade, I have been pretty much dead set on being a veterinarian,” Masterson said. “I thought it was really fascinating how a veterinarian could come out to the ranch and look at an animal and kind of know how to help, and I wanted to be part of that.”

Her interest in laboratory work, microorganisms, and parasites, though, didn’t blossom until she was an undergraduate student at WSU, where she majored in microbiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s School of Molecular Biosciences. After asking around about research opportunities, she eventually found herself a position in the lab of Dr. Massaro Ueti, who is a research veterinary medical officer at the Agricultural Research Service-United States Department of Agriculture and adjunct professor in WSU’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology. She was allowed to help with studies involving tick-transmitted diseases like Babesia bovis, which causes millions of dollars in losses to cattlemen throughout Latin America every year.

“That’s when I really saw how much I enjoyed the research side,” Masterson said.

After graduation, in addition to completing a residency in clinical microbiology, Masterson also plans to apply to doctoral programs that will allow her to participate in more scientific research.

“Give me anything with a slide, a microorganism, and a pipette and I’m happy,” she said.

Wherever her path takes her, she is excited for what the future will bring.

“Going to work every day and making a difference and being able to see that you’re making that difference is pretty amazing,” she said.