Scripps Student Spotlight: Kayla Wilson

A PhD student studying the biochemistry of marine sponges seeks new ways to help improve human health

Kayla Wilson is a third-year PhD student majoring in marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Her field of study is biochemistry and she is being advised by Scripps scientist Bradley Moore. She earned her BS in Chemistry from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., in 2017. 


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Kayla Wilson: I chose Scripps because it seemed to have everything I was looking for both academically and personally. There were several labs here that were doing research I was interested in, and the people in those labs seemed really happy to be at Scripps. I knew I generally wanted to be on the West Coast when I was applying to grad school, but as soon as I visited Scripps, I knew I wanted to be in San Diego in particular. What really made me fall in love with Scripps was the culture of work-life balance I saw on my visit and continue to see every day.


en: What are you researching at Scripps and how did you become interested in this field?

KW: I study the biochemistry of marine sponges in order to find new molecules and enzymes that can improve human health. Sponges might not look like much but they're actually known to produce lots of medicinal compounds, including the first FDA-approved antiviral medicine, Acyclovir. I scuba dive for sponges around San Diego, then I take those sponges back to my lab and figure out what molecules they're making, how they're making them, and whether they have the potential to improve human health in some way. I chose to go into this field because it combined my undergraduate research in antibiotic chemistry with the personal passion for the ocean I discovered while working on sailboats during my gap year. 


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? 

KW: Life as a Scripps student is pretty great. If I'm going out to collect sponges, my day usually starts pretty early. I'll usually head down to the Scripps dive locker around 7:30 a.m. to get my scuba gear set up and to get one of the boats ready to launch off Scripps Pier. We'll take the boat out to the La Jolla kelp beds, do a couple dives, then head back to Scripps by 11:00 a.m. After getting myself and my gear cleaned up, I head into the lab with my bucket of fresh sponges and start processing them. 

Processing involves taking pictures of the sponges, recording them in our database, and then separating them based on what scientific purpose they'll serve. We typically need one set of sponges for DNA sequencing, one set for chemical analysis, and a final set for phylogenetic characterization. Depending on how long that takes, we can usually start doing chemical extractions and sometimes DNA extractions the same day we collect. I usually get work done in-lab until 6:00 p.m. or so, then I head back home to my adorable dog, Captain. I usually finish off the day with yoga, or if I really can't get enough of the ocean, I'll take Captain for a walk on the beach. 


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

KW: I think a lot of my work is exciting but I'd have to say field work is definitely the thing that satisfies my craving for adventure. There's just something very cool about sailing out into the Pacific Ocean and exploring all the crazy organisms that live below the surface. I love being on and in the water as much as possible so I feel really grateful that my work gives me plenty of opportunities to do that. 


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

KW: My undergraduate advisor Dr. Larryn Peterson has been an incredible female role model in science. I worked in her lab for three years and she taught me so much about what it means to be a woman in science and how to address the challenges that come with that. I also consider my current PhD advisor, Bradley Moore, a wonderful scientific mentor. He truly cultivates a welcoming and balanced work space, which is clearly driven by his deep concern for the well being of his students and postdocs. Additionally my postdoc mentor here at Scripps, Tristan de Rond, has played a huge role in helping me grow as a scientist and take autonomy over my own research. I also have to give a shoutout to my mom, who is a professor of pediatric nursing, for always encouraging me to seek out research experiences and to follow my passions wherever they may take me. I definitely believe my amazing past and current mentors are a big reason why I'm still in science today. 


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

KW: I think imposter syndrome is something all PhD students have to grapple with at some point in their graduate school experience and I am definitely no exception. Graduate school is supposed to be a learning experience and you're supposed to make mistakes, but it can be hard to figure out how to learn from your mistakes instead of beating yourself up over them. I think I also struggle with finding time for research and all the other incredible things happening around Scripps and UC San Diego outside of the lab. I am heavily involved in a few student groups around campus and I love giving back to the community in that way, but I've definitely had to learn how to balance the responsibilities that come with those groups, with the responsibilities I have in-lab. 


en: What are your future plans?

KW: I'm open to several different possibilities at the moment. I know I want research to play a big role in my future career but I'm not tied to one field in particular. I love that my research and PhD program are super interdisciplinary because I'm learning skills that I can just as easily bring to a biotech lab as I can to a research ship, or any number of spaces in between. 

You can find Kayla on Twitter @ScienceSiren_.


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