Under the Lens: Kim Attebury

“Thinking about what else I could possibly do -- I don’t know! It has always been science. This is the way it has to be.”

“Thinking about what else I could possibly do -- I don’t know! It has always been science. This is the way it has to be.”


Kimberly Attebury is a second-year PhD student from the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology group, who works in Dr. Aixa Alfonso’s Neurobiology lab studying C. elegans. To Kim, science is a family-inspired passion, a field she knew she would end up in. With preliminary exams around the corner, she has kept busy collecting RNA in the lab and destressing by baking at home. This interview has been edited and condensed.

When did you realize you loved science?

It started from day one. Science has always been in the family. My older brother is also a chemist. We would go to museums and watch nature documentaries. My father is an organic chemist. Thinking about what else I could possibly do -- I don’t know! It has always been science. This is the way it has to be. 

Why did you want to be a PhD student? How did you prepare to enter a PhD?

I was involved in undergraduate research at Purdue. We were a bioengineering lab, focusing on bone biology. In science, we solve puzzles -- I love puzzles. I continued working in this lab through my senior year. The summer into my junior year, I had a mini-project investigating the effect of gene regulation in bone collagen, and presented my work at ASBMR. This was exciting! My experience doing research helped me. But I also took a gap year, which really helped me -- thinking about whether this was what I really wanted.

A gap year is a wise decision?

The gap year was mentally helpful. Now I feel like I am READY to take this on!

Describe your research to a 1st grader

How does a nerve cell know what it is? How does it know what to do? I am looking at a signal that lets that nerve figure out what it is. So it knows what to do.

To picture what you do, describe yourself working in the lab.

In the lab, I am working under the microscope, looking at many different fluorescent reporters. Or I am making cultures, trying to isolate RNA.

So you are walking back and forth with flasks in your hands, which contain media and worms, so that you can collect RNA.


Why is RNA important in biology?-

It’s important when we are thinking about protein expression. It is in the middle of “instructions to product.” It lets us know the level at which we are getting these building blocks.

What do you love most about being a PhD student?

You are somewhat flexible with what you are working on. Sometimes, the direction you want to go in, you have a say in it. Overall, you have more control over what you are studying than when you are taking classes as an undergraduate. Or outside of academia and working in industry, where you’re given clear-cut instructions on what to do.

Do you have a best moment you’d like to share? An achievement or a fun day in the lab?

I can remember this vividly, it happened right before Thanksgiving. There was this project that I was working on, and it was just one big pain after another. There was this one day where it was just going right. I was collecting RNA, and I had to run my gel and it came out exactly as I expected -- I have never felt so much joy. I call it the Thanksgiving Miracle. Things started going right.

What challenges do you think students face in PhD programs?

I have faced it, and others surely have faced it: We are all smart. We are all capable, and we work really hard. If we were to talk about someone else, we would say, oh they can do it. But when you think about yourself, there is doubt. Our biggest challenge is building that confidence, to be able to do what we need to do in a confident way.

Describe what you enjoy about teaching.

I taught genetics lab my first semester. It’s a lot of learning as you go. But I’ve gotten up to speed. Now I teach lectures. I enjoy teaching molecular genetics over Mendelian genetics. It’s what I have a better grasp on. I enjoy when students understand the answer! The look on their face -- It’s like, the clouds have parted! And that really gives me the confidence too, as in, I can effectively communicate science.

 10 years from now, where do you see yourself?

It’s tough to say specifically, but I do know that I want to go into biotech. My true interests are in research and development, perhaps at a company where I can still do lab work but in an industry setting.

 Favorite Chicago place or experience?

Growing up, we came up here a lot. There are so many things I love about the city, it’s hard to pick one thing. But, one thing I love doing is bringing people here. Whenever friends come, it’s fun to look at their faces. I love showing off the city.

 If you weren’t a PhD student, what would you be doing?

I would do a complete 180 -- nothing to do with science at all. I really enjoy cooking and baking. Maybe I’d go to culinary school. Maybe there is a little of science involved. It is a creative process. I find a lot of joy in it. I feel like I can let go a little bit. I love making gnocchi. I also love making cheesecake -- that’s my dessert.