Kate Rozen-Gagnon '06

PhD in Virology, Institute Pasteur, Paris

Of all disease-transmitting insects, the mosquito is the greatest menace, causing several million deaths a year by spreading malaria, dengue, and yellow fever.

Few weapons exist to combat mosquito- borne viruses besides insecticides. But virologist Kate Rozen-Gagnon ’06 is conducting research that could significantly improve the arsenal. Currently, she is completing a five-year postdoctoral fellowship at The Rockefeller University, in New York, focusing on arthropod-borne viruses.

“We’re trying to understand how viruses act on both sides of the mosquito-human relationship,” says Kate, who holds a PhD in Virology from Institute Pasteur in Paris. “For example, we have a fairly good understanding of dengue virus fever and how it acts in the human body, as well as a good understanding of the immune factors that are activated in human cells, but surprisingly, we know very little about the mosquito side of things.”

Developing genetic tool kits

In the biological world, DNA is the simplest level of organization; RNA is the next level, and above that, at the highest level, are proteins. Kate’s research is concentrating on the RNA level. Basically, she is developing a tool kit for looking at virus-host RNA interactions in a mosquito.

“We know the virus enters the cell as an RNA genome, but how does the viral RNA interact with mosquito proteins and RNAs?” inquires Kate. “From studies in human and fly cells we know some important proteins that interact with both host and virus RNAs, so how can we leverage that knowledge to adapt techniques for discovering virus-host RNA interactions in mosquitos? If you don’t understand what the virus needs, you can’t deprive it of anything.”

When you do understand exactly what the virus needs, you can develop anti-viral drugs, according to Kate. To illustrate, she points to the case of Hepatitis C: “Scientists can now deplete micro-RNA 122 with a drug and the virus cannot replicate in the liver.”

In 2010, Kate was awarded a Fulbright and spent a year in Singapore, studying dengue virus. Her research results were published in a journal for those interested in protein purification, as well as in the Journal of Virology.

In addition to the potential global health benefits of her research, Kate simply loves doing the science, being in the lab, taking care of her cells, and conducting experiments.

“The cool thing about science is you’re never done,” says Kate. “Everything you find out just leads to another question.”

Communicating results

When she was attending The Northwest School in 9th through 12th grades, Kate’s passion was centered more on French and art than on science. “I had Françoise Cantor, she was the greatest ever; and I had Lisa Beemster for art classes,” recalls Kate. “When I graduated I thought I’d be a French major.”

But as she focused on Humanities and Modern Languages, Kate was gaining the skills that would fuel her scientific career. One of her main reasons for coming to The Northwest School was to become a better writer. The editing and rewriting skills she gained in Upper School are now invaluable to her life as a scientist.

“My job as a scientist is to clearly communicate what I have found. There’s a daily level to that,” confirms Kate. “You start with your colleagues—explain what you did, what you saw, and how you interpret the results. When you are running your own lab, all you do is communicate through papers, presentations at conferences, speaking to audiences, and writing grants for funding and fellowships.”

Learning to question everything

In 2015, Kate was awarded The Rockefeller University’s Women & Science Fellowship, which gave her a year’s funding for her research. Then she won a National Institutes of Health grant which gives her another three years of funded research.

Along with strong writing skills, Kate says she came away from Northwest fully equipped for vigorous inquiry and dialogue. This she credits to the school’s open environment.

“At Northwest, we called teachers by their first names and we felt we could approach the teachers and ask questions. We could have an honest discussion with them; we could have a disagreement,” recalls Kate. “In the sciences you are going to question everything. You’re going to go to your boss and have a dialogue. You’ll never get anywhere in science if you don’t know how to ask questions. NWS was really good at encouraging that open inquisitive attitude.”

This profile originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Northwest School Magazine.