Postdoc Honored for Innovative Work in Microbiology

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Caitlin Kowalski, Guarini ’20, received one of five L’Oréal Women in Science awards.

Microbiologist Caitlin Kowalski, Guarini '20
Microbiologist Caitlin Kowalski, Guarini ’20, says “the amazing community at Dartmouth built the framework” for her career path. (Photo by Pablo Durana)

Last month, when microbiologist Caitlin Kowalski, Guarini ’20, got a phone call from a number she didn’t recognize, she ignored it and launched into a diatribe with her lab-mate about the evils of spam.

Luckily, though, instead of swiping left, she checked voice mail and returned the call. Turns out, she had been awarded one of only five 2023 L’Oréal for Women in Science fellowships to help further her research into how certain yeasts that live on human skin can help protect against infection. The $60,000 year-long award also supports her mentorship of other women in STEM fields.

“The acknowledgement that this work is interesting and important will really help me in the future,” says an elated Kowlaski. “It’s going to be a very busy year, and I’m so lucky to have the opportunity.”

After earning her PhD from the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, Kowalski accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of Oregon to join the Barber Lab, which focuses on the evolution of host-microbe interactions. She says her current investigation of “good” fungi has been evolving from research into “bad” fungi she began at the Geisel School of Medicine, in the lab of Professor of Microbiology and Immunology Robert Cramer.

“I rank Caitlin in the top 1% of all PhD candidates I have trained and interacted with during my scientific career, which spans more than 20 years,” says Cramer.

“Her scholarship has opened new areas of investigation in the field of filamentous fungal biology, pathogenesis, and drug resistance. How yeast on our skin interact with other skin microbes and our host immune system is a relatively new research area with significant implications for multiple human diseases. Caitlin is going to be a pioneer and leader in a burgeoning new field.”

Cramer says Kowalski is also “an invaluable member of our broader scientific community, not only for her scientific excellence, but for her self-giving nature that has benefitted multiple students and trainees at Dartmouth and other institutions.”

This is the 20th anniversary of L’Oréal USA’s initiative advancing the work of women scientists.

Kowalski and L’Oréal also made a video where she discusses her work.

The awards ceremony was hosted Nov. 16 by CBS News Anchor Norah O’Donnell at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

The celebration capped a weeklong symposium, including a panel at the National Academy of Science in which Dartmouth’s Mary Lou Guerinot, a professor of biological sciences familiar with Kowalski’s work, participated.

Kowalski was happily surprised to see her there, sharing perspectives about how women scientists can embrace opportunities and scale obstacles.

“I could not have received better training in microbiology than at Dartmouth,” Kowalski says. “In Robb Cramer’s lab I was studying a fungal pathogen in people who are immuno-compromised. But at the end of my PhD, I became interested in how fungi that live on our body could be helping us. You know, every idea stems from something. The amazing community at Dartmouth built the framework that has led me in this direction.”

Charlotte Albright