Student Spotlight: Science geek Catharine Cowan does it all (no, really)

Cat Cowan at a lab bench

Cat Cowan, a dual DVM/Ph.D. student, conducts immunology research, specifically on how neutrophils behave in chronic inflammation, such as in the autoimmune disease lupus.

To say that Catharine (Cat) Cowan is an overachiever is a bit of an understatement. The Michigan native is a dual DVM/Ph.D. student, researcher extraordinaire, a Stamps Fellow, an alumna of Tech's Global Perspectives Program, and she completed the Virginia Tech Graduate School Future Professoriate Certificate.

Her real love, however, is her research in immunology. A close second might be the worldwide travels her degree programs have afforded her so far.

For the past three years, Cowan has been performing immunology research in the laboratory of Dr. S. Ansar Ahmed, professor of immunology and head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. Much of her research deals with neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell in mammals. “Neutrophils are a critical cellular component of innate immunity,” she explained. Formed from stem cells in the bone marrow, neutrophils are one of the first-responders of inflammatory cells to migrate towards the site of inflammation. Her thesis project focuses on how neutrophils behave in chronic inflammation, such as in the autoimmune disease lupus.

Cowan wears her science geek badge proudly. Her Facebook profile photo is of a neutrophil. She even dressed up for Halloween as E. histolytica, the amoeba. Her costume consisted of a sheet through which her “pseudopods” could grasp food and beverages and the cutout for her head was repurposed as a nucleus. That's a hardcore science fanatic!

Cowan, who completed her master's degree in cancer cell molecular signaling before enrolling in the college, first had an opportunity to take her current research on the road when she attended the 46th annual meeting of the Society of Leukocyte Biology in Providence, R.I. “While the meeting was focused on research related to innate immunology, the talks and posters covered a large span of immunological research topics,” she noted. “There were many panels that directly related to my research on neutrophils.”

Neutrophils slide

Microscopy image of neutrophils, the subject of much of Cowanís immunology research

The Rhode Island meeting also gave the 33-year-old an opportunity to discuss her research with other graduate students around the country. “As the only member of my lab to attend the meeting, I took the opportunity to share a hotel room with another recent Ph.D. graduate from Ohio State who turned out to be also working on neutrophils,” Cowan added. “We had a great time talking about our respective research and graduate school experiences.”

This networking would not have been possible without a travel grant from the Society of Leukocyte Biology and additional support from the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation, Inc. “The support offered by the Stamps Foundation for enrichment activities, such as attending national meetings, is hugely beneficial to my graduate education, and I am very thankful for their generosity,” Cowan said.

Cowan's parallel degree program has taken her to more than just Rhode Island, though. She recently completed the coursework for the Virginia Tech Graduate School's Future Professoriate Certificate. To complete the certificate requirements, Cowan was selected to participate in the Global Perspectives Program (GPP), which took her to Western Europe last summer.

The Global Perspectives Program was founded by Karen P. DePauw, Virginia Tech's vice president and dean for graduate education. She personally reviews all applications and makes the student selections for the program. In order to minimize out-of-pocket student expenses, the majority of program costs are covered by the Graduate School.

Catharine Cowan with travel group in Zurich, Switzerland

Photo by Justine Shanks

Cat Cowan (top row, center) and other Global Perspectives Program participants began their exploration of European higher education systems at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

Cowan was able to travel to Switzerland, France, and Italy, where she compared and contrasted European higher education systems and focused on the question, “Are universities and societies meeting each other's needs?” She had the opportunity to join students from Switzerland's University of Basel to give a presentation at the Swiss Embassy addressing the question.

After returning to the U.S. and Virginia-Maryland Vet Med, Cowan presented her neutrophil thesis work at the college's Research Symposium on March 20. In addition, she presented a poster titled “Life after the Ph.D.: Graduate Career Landscapes in Switzerland and the U.S.” at Virginia Tech's Deans' Forum on Global Engagement on March 27, based on her studies during the Global Perspectives Program.

She has just returned from the American Association of Immunologists May meeting in Pittsburgh. “The opportunity to travel to national meetings is critical for developing a well-rounded academic researcher,” she noted. “The AAI meeting brings together so many people from around the world to share their research. The amount of information was overwhelming, but I've got some great new ideas for experiments to try!”

Her travel may be temporarily slowing down a bit, however. This August, Cowan will enter the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program and complete the remainder of her Ph.D. work in the summers following her first and second years of veterinary training.

Although one of these programs is enough for most students to tackle, Cowan is well on her way to realizing her goal of a professional trifecta: a career in translational research, teaching students immunology at the university level, and practicing veterinary medicine. Sounds like a dream come true for a self-proclaimed science geek!

Read more about the Stamps Foundation’s support for the college.

SAVMA Syposium gala

Cat Cowan presented a poster titled "Life after the PhD: Graduate Career Landscapes in Switzerland and the U.S." at the Deans' Forum on Global Engagement at Virginia Tech. The poster represented research conducted during her study abroad opportunity through Virginia Tech's Global Perspectives Program.