The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) Department is fortunate to have a multitude of exceptional graduate students within its Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program dedicated to developing their research and teaching skills. Our students are making discoveries and generating independent knowledge through their research within our labs.
Meet Stephanie Collins, a graduate student working towards her Ph.D. in the BMMB Program. Like many scientists, Stephanie grew up with an inherent curiosity about how the world works. She obsessed over things like mini science kits and loved watching science-related shows such as: The Magic School Bus, Popular Mechanics for Kids, and Mythbusters.
Stephanie’s curiosity, and desire to learn more, led her to attend Western University to pursue her undergraduate education. It was through her first biochemistry course that she realized her love for molecular biology. “I remember everyone I knew hating that course, but it was one of my favorites!” says Stephanie. Although she had always loved science, it wasn’t until working as an undergraduate researcher in the laboratory of Professor of Microbiology & Immunology, and Surgery, Gregor Reid, that she truly realized her passion for research.
Stephanie’s involvement in research manifested itself out of a desire to help people. She truly cared about the human health impact of the research ongoing in Dr. Reid’s lab. “It was then that I became passionate about understanding how human health is impacted by microbes,” says Stephanie.
Research in the Reid laboratory focuses on the health benefits of probiotics and beneficial bacteria, including the natural flora of the vaginal and breast microbiome, and how probiotics may be used to mitigate the toxicity of environmental contaminants. Stephanie’s work within the laboratory investigated the vaginal microbiome and evaluated the potential for prebiotics to maintain a balanced flora. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that have health benefits by selectively feeding commensal microbes in a microbial community.
Stephanie eventually graduated from Western University with her Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry and Cell Biology. She continued her education at Western University, also earning her Master of Science degree in Microbiology and Immunology.
Stephanie’s decision to attend Penn State, and pursue her graduate studies in the BMMB Program, came from her desire to attend a program that supported a robust and diverse array of research. “I realized that the research opportunities were endless here!” said Stephanie. She was also impressed with the state-of-the-art facilities and equipment the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department had at its disposal.
Currently, Stephanie works in the Patterson Laboratory under the mentorship of Professor of Molecular Toxicology, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Andrew Patterson. Research in the Patterson Laboratory focuses on understanding the host-metabolite-microbiome axis, specifically how the manipulation of gut bacteria through xenobiotic exposure, or the use of gnotobiotic mouse models, impacts bile acid pools, their metabolism, and how they interact with host nuclear receptors.
Stephanie’s research in the laboratory specifically focuses on how the gut microbiome influences the detoxification and removal of pharmaceuticals, environmental toxicants, and other chemicals from the body. She is investigating how gut microbiomes interact with a human transcription factor called the Pregnane X Receptor (PXR). PXR regulates many of the enzymes involved in the detoxification of foreign chemicals entering the body. Using a mouse model and cell-based assays, Stephanie is testing how molecules produced by the gut microbes alter the activity of PXR. “This research is essential to help understand why individuals respond differently to drugs and other toxic compounds,” says Stephanie.
Throughout her life, one of Stephanie’s greatest motivators has been her innate desire to creatively answer interesting science questions that will advance the field and impact human health. Sadly, throughout her career she has faced opposition and has often been underestimated as a woman in science. An unfortunate hurdle she has had to navigate, she credits her teachers and mentors who believed in her and challenged her to persist, to do better, and to succeed. “I think the best way to overcome those that doubt us is to prove them wrong, time and time again!” says Stephanie.
Stephanie takes her role as a woman in science very seriously and feels that it is incredibly important for underrepresented groups to involve themselves in STEM to increase the diverse representation and experience of scientists around the world. “Being a woman in STEM makes me feel excited and hopeful,” says Stephanie. “I can see that the gender gap in STEM continues to shrink, and even though there is still a long way to go in certain fields, I am hopeful that this pursuit towards equality and diversity will extend to other underrepresented minorities that have already made incredible contributions to our scientific communities.” Her hope is that any person interested in pursuing a career in STEM can find a role model that they can see themselves in. Stephanie has been fortunate to have had many incredible female mentors throughout her life, such as Shannon Seney who served as the laboratory manager in the Reid Laboratory, as well as her piano teacher, Kathy, and her high school music teacher, Mrs. Lamont.
Outside of the laboratory, Stephanie is involved in the BMMB Graduate Student Association (BMMB GSA), where she currently serves as Treasurer. In addition to managing the group’s financials and planning yearly budgets, she has also been very involved in planning and coordinating events such as monthly coffee hour events, welcome week events for incoming students, and in 2019 a Galaxy tutorial and demo for our grad students.
Additionally, Stephanie enjoys hiking and finds it to be extremely therapeutic. “When I’m hiking a trail with interesting wildlife or just a really steep hill, my mind completely clears and I don’t think of anything else,” says Stephanie. “It really pulls me into the present.” Locally she hikes in the Rothrock State Forest but has also hiked the mountains of Iceland and parts of Bruce Tail in Canada.
Stephanie is an avid reader, enjoying genres such as horror, mystery, science fiction, and recently, non-fiction. A talented musician, Stephanie plays the piano, guitar, and trombone, while also putting on quite the set at karaoke establishments.
Stephanie, like so many of our graduate students, has continued to feed her curiosity and dedicate herself towards the pursuit of scientific discovery. As a Woman in STEM she believes that as allies to minorities in STEM it is important to recognize and amplify the voices of those that may not be heard. “We also need to really listen to the experiences of underrepresented groups to understand their perspectives and how we can best close those gaps,” says Stephanie.
Well said Stephanie! We are very proud to have her as part of our department, and We Are Penn State!