By BGSU Marketing & Communications
A new Bowling Green State University graduate is pursuing her career aspirations in the medical field after a formative undergraduate research experience at the university.
Mackenna Starr ’23 always planned to become a doctor. Her goal was to study microbiology at BGSU and then attend medical school. She even became an EMT at 17 years old, assuming the exposure to emergency medicine would be valuable in her future career.
During her junior year at BGSU, Starr broadened her career aspirations after conducting research through the University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship program.
“I remember feeling elated walking around talking to people and presenting my research at the CURS symposium,” said Starr, an Honors College student. “It was so gratifying, and I think I knew at that point I wanted research to be a big part of my career.”
A native of Vestal, New York, Starr will begin a MD/Ph.D. program at Michigan State University in the fall. She plans to earn a medical degree and a doctorate in microbiology during the roughly eight-year program.
“I couldn’t see myself doing just one or the other,” Starr said. “My research experience through CURS was a big part of the shift in my decision. Research and clinical practice are incredibly important aspects of my life, and I couldn’t imagine myself without them both.”
Starr graduated from BGSU in April with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and minors in chemistry and public health.
She credits associate biology professor Dr. Hans Wildschutte with helping deepen her passion for research and providing her the autonomy to advance her research skills.
“I was designing my own experiments and doing my own background research to determine what methods would work best,” Starr said. “It’s been so fun, and I’m learning so much.”
Starr studied phage, which are highly specific viruses capable of infecting and killing bacteria and are crucial in the fight against multi-drug resistant bacterial pathogens. Her research sought to determine the genes responsible for phage resistance in Pseudomonas aeruginosa and to optimize processes to understand phage-host interactions better.
Starr said receptors on the surface of the phage need to be better understood to allow for the creation of effective phage treatment, a central focus of the study.
Starr made an unexpected yet vital discovery during the project.
“Pseudomonas produce a lot of pigment, so they’re really colorful when they’re on petri dishes,” she said. “The strains that were phage-resistant produced a red pigment, and the ones that were phage-susceptible produced a purple-blue pigment.
“So 100% across the board, all the resistant strains produced a different color pigment. That was a finding I was super psyched about.”
The discovery could provide an effective method for selecting phage-resistant strains, which is beneficial due to the high specificity of phage in treating bacterial infections.
Starr said she plans to continue studying bacteriophage in graduate school, though she’s less certain of the medical specialization she’ll choose or what her future career will entail.
“That’s the beauty of the dual degree,” Starr said. “There are so many possibilities of things I can do. One thing I know is that as much as I want to say I hope to change the world or make huge scientific discoveries, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that small wins matter too.”
Wildschutte said he’s proud to have played a part in Starr’s journey.
“There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing my students thrive in research and education,” he said. “Mackenna is ambitious and motivated, and I feel privileged to have influenced her career. She is completely aware that her experience with phage research, combined with medicine, has great potential, especially with the global crisis in which bacterial pathogens are evolving resistance to all antibiotics.
“I predict by the time she earns her medical degree, phage therapy will be FDA-approved to treat bacterial infections, and she will be a leader in the field.”