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COSAM Student Pursues Childhood Dream of Becoming a Biologist

Published: 03/12/2019

By: Carla Nelson

Growing up with a fascination for “The Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, Auburn University student Kaitlyn Murphy has known she wanted to be a biologist since she was five-years old.

“I was that kid on the playground, while everyone else was swinging or going down the slide, I was pretending to wrestle alligators,” Kaitlyn said. “Wanting to do research and science and study reptiles has always been a part of who I am. I could never imagine myself doing something else.”

Originally from Council Bluffs, Iowa, Kaitlyn graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Iowa State University last year and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in the Auburn University Department of Biological Sciences. She said she chose to pursue her Ph.D. at Auburn to work with Dr. Daniel Warner and Dr. Mary Mendonca.

“They’re both fantastic and study what I’m interested in,” she said. “I’m really interested in development and reproduction, specifically in reptiles, and I’m interested in how environmental factors can influence both of those things. I use the microbiome as a tool to analyze those.”

Kaitlyn is currently working on two different projects, using the American alligator and the brown anole as models.

“With the American alligators I’ll be looking at the effect of external estrogen and how it can affect the gut microbiome of alligators,” she said. “With the anoles I’ll be looking at how the external egg microbiome of those anoles, where it originates from, whether it’s from the mother, whether it’s from the soil the egg is laid in, and how that can influence egg survival.”

Kaitlyn will continue her study by bringing in 24 newly-hatched alligators from a preserve in Louisiana this week. They will be housed at a thermally-controlled off-campus aviary. Research on the alligators through three treatment groups will be conducted throughout the summer. The study will include collection of internal tissues in the alligators’ gut and digestive tract, brain tissue and other tissues throughout the body.

In her free time, Kaitlyn enjoys working as the assistant coach for the Tigers Volleyball Club, coaching kids. She played volleyball in high school and coached as an undergrad.

“Getting to teach kids about volleyball is the least stressful thing I do all week,” she said laughing.

Kaitlyn said she has enjoyed learning more about Auburn and has been impressed by the working environment in the Department of Biological Sciences.      

“Science is kind of a lifestyle in its own way,” she said. Sharing that with other people in COSAM has been really neat to experience. I’ve really enjoyed everybody I’ve met.”

Kaitlyn said she hopes to one day conduct research in her own lab and was excited to get the chance to show her appreciation for Irwin’s influence to lead her to that goal. She recently had the chance to meet Irwin’s daughter, Bindi.

“She is one of the most genuine and kind people I’ve ever met,” Kaitlyn said of Bindi. “Her passion is so apparent. She’s so enthusiastic about wildlife and all of the work her family does. I had the opportunity to thank her for her father’s work and express how much it has influenced me. The entire reason I am who I am now is because of his work. It was really moving and such a cool experience.”

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