By Mariah Cox | Bond LSC

It’s common knowledge that all Ph.D. candidates must complete research in preparation for a dissertation, but what happens when one’s faculty mentor moves to a different school before completion?

Kaitlyn Waters found herself in that situation as she was preparing for the final year of her Ph.D. program.

Waters, a current veterinary medical sciences Ph.D. candidate at Mississippi State University (MSU), is finishing her research in the Bond Life Sciences Center with primary investigator Henry Wan. Wan came to Mizzou last summer from MSU as a joint professor in the School of Medicine, the departments of Veterinary Pathobiology, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

While a handful of Wan’s Ph.D. candidates graduated before he left MSU, Kaitlyn Waters and Mandy Guan were the last of the bunch to finish their degrees.

For Waters, it was a simple decision moving 500 miles from Starkville, Mississippi, to Columbia.

“It was actually pretty easy. Like personally and especially just school-wise and finishing the research,” Waters said. “The way he presented it was that we had more opportunities here to collaborate with more departments around campus and core facilities. It was definitely an easy decision.”

After graduation, Waters has a four-year fellowship with the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (FADDL) that begins at Plum Island in Connecticut and transitions to the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility set to open in Manhattan, Kansas, in 2022.

“They’re opening up this new facility and they’re bringing in new scientists. They’re training us to be the, quote, unquote, ‘next group of scientists’ for that facility,” Waters said. “It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s exciting.”

Before her move to Missouri, Waters had never lived far away from home. A Byram native, Waters only moved two-and-a-half hours away to attend MSU for her undergraduate and doctoral degrees.

“If I had done this right after finishing undergrad, I think it would have been difficult but because I’m older now, I am more comfortable being independent and relying on myself.”

While it was an important steppingstone for Waters’ post-graduation plans, she misses the football culture and food back home.

“I’m a big sports fan in general and I’ve noticed that Columbia still functions during football games, which is completely weird to me because Starkville shuts down. You can’t go anywhere near MSU’s campus on gameday without traffic being insane and people being everywhere,” Waters said.

Before Waters began the research path, she wanted to become a veterinarian, but those plans got derailed when she found out she did not get into veterinary school.

“When I didn’t get in it was kind of like, I have no backup plan,” Waters said. “Before joining Dr. Wan’s lab I had never held a pipette. I had heard about research, but I had no idea that it’s really what I wanted to do. I definitely don’t think I would be the person I am today if I had gone to veterinary school.”

From not being able to hold a pipette, Waters has come a long way since the beginning of her doctoral program. Waters’ dissertation focuses on the RNP complex, which are three polymerase proteins in the influenza genome that are responsible for the replication of viral genome and RNA. Specifically, she is looking to understand how the RNP complex efficiently and inefficiently replicate in nature to cause new viral strains.

According to Waters, her research path has given her a chance to learn and grow not only as a scientist, but also as a person that she might not have gotten back home as a veterinarian.

“If I had gotten into vet school and become a veterinarian, I would’ve stayed in Mississippi to practice as a clinician and, possibly, own my own clinic which would’ve been great. But now knowing I will have a Ph.D. in infectious diseases, I also know this path can take me anywhere in the word and I can see a lot more whereas if I’d been a veterinarian I would not be experiencing the things that I get the chance to experience now.”

At Plum Island, Waters will serve as a liaison between the computer scientists and the biologists and virologists. Her fellowship will allow her to collaborate with influential scientists and travel the world.

After the four years is up, Waters hopes to stay with the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

“I don’t think I can get a better research experience anywhere else in the United States. At this moment, I plan on sticking with it and staying with them, but anything could happen.”