Kim Carlson: ‘Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History’

Kim Carlson discovered her love of genetics as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She was inspired by her former biology professor, Doug Lund, who retired in 1999 after a 37-year career here.

“He encouraged me to pursue genetics,” Carlson said. “His advice was, ‘If you love it, then do it. You will be happy you did.’”

Now in her 17th year as a UNK faculty member, the professor and assistant chair in the Department of Biology takes the same approach with her students.

She views research as an opportunity to mentor and teach students while passing along the passion she has for molecular genetics.

“I love seeing their excitement when they succeed in the lab,” Carlson said of her students. “I like to see them grow as researchers, from the student who comes to my lab as a freshman and is just learning, to the senior who is on a stage in front of a room full of people presenting their research and doing it with confidence.”

Unsurprisingly, Carlson puts students at the center of her work, allowing them to experience every aspect of a project.

And they have a little fun along the way. Her perfect day in the lab?

“I’m working with my students. The radio is on. And we’re talking and laughing. I love this. My students would say my perfect day is one when I didn’t do something wrong, like set the cabinets on fire. Yep, I did that. They made a taped square on the counter for me to put the Bunsen burner so that never happens again.”

How do you measure success as a researcher?
“For the longest time, I would have said peer-review publications, invited presentations and grant funding. That is not true anymore. I seriously live vicariously through my students. When they get up and give a presentation, and do it with enjoyment, that is success to me. If my students publish a paper, that is success to me. When they get a good result and come to my office full of excitement, that is success to me. If they decide to have a career in science, that is success to me.”

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What are your biggest discoveries?
“During my postdoc, I discovered a gene, OTK18, that regulates HIV infection of human macrophages. In human macrophages, we found that when we infected them with HIV then added an adenovirus expressing OTK18, the HIV infection was at non-HIV-infected levels. Essentially, we cleared HIV in a petri dish. I have two U.S. patents from this work.
“The second accomplishment is my Nora virus work. My students discovered Nora virus infection in one of our lines of fruit flies. At the time, the only group working on this was the team that discovered it in Sweden.
“This group was led by Dr. Dan Hultmark, one of the best and most prominent figures in the field of insect innate immunity and has collaborated with Dr. Jules Hoffman, who won the Nobel Prize for this area. When we found Nora virus, I contacted Dr. Hultmark. He called, and we have become collaborators.”

What do you want people to take away from your research?
“Fruit flies are fun! We use fruit flies in research because they share a large percentage of genes with humans, and what we learn from them can be translated to human research. We are doing high-level research here at UNK. My students are actively presenting and publishing their research. My group is actually considered a leader in Nora virus research, which is great for the students. When they go to scientific meetings and present, they are the experts.”

What qualities make someone in your position successful?
“You have to know your limitations. You have to know how to fail. When my students fail, I tell them, ‘If it worked the first time, we would call it SEARCH. Because it doesn’t, that is why we call it RESEARCH.’ I also think time management is very important. You have to be able to balance teaching, research, service, family and all aspects of your life.
“Lastly, you have to know how to be tenacious. I tell my female students, ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history.’ I have this on a board outside my office. I truly believe in this.
“As a woman in science, you can’t be afraid to put yourself out there and stand on your own two feet. You have to go for what you want and work hard for it. Don’t let anyone trample on your goals.”

Title: Professor and Assistant Department Chair
College: Arts and Sciences
Department: Biology
Education: Ph.D., Biological Sciences: Genetics, Cellular & Molecular Biology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1997; Master of Science in Education, Biological Sciences, University of Nebraska at Kearney, 1994; Bachelor of Science, Comprehensive Biology, UNK, 1992.
Years at UNK: 17 (28 with University of Nebraska)
Areas of research/specialization: Molecular geneticist with background in aging, developmental biology and immunology. Research focuses on interplay between the immune system and aging using Drosophila melanogaster as a model system. Her students were the first in the U.S. to discover a novel RNA virus, Nora virus, in fly stocks.