Meet Christina Carlson, Research Biologist (Mendenhall Research Fellow) at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center

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Describe your job and what you do on a day-to-day basis. I conduct research focused on environmental transmission cycles for chronic wasting disease, a prion disease of cervids, and investigate methods to interrupt these cycles. Our laboratory’s organization, operation and the day-to-day research aren’t entirely unlike that found in academic settings, but there are some differences between the government and academic sectors. For me, a primary advantage of a science career in the government is that my work directly serves the public interest. As a result, science carried out in government agencies is often of an applied nature—we are primarily interested in and tasked with addressing the most critical questions and problems impacting society, the environment, and our natural resources. The flip side of this coin is that, as public servants, we have less control over the direction our science takes than our academic counterparts since public and congressional priorities change year to year. In my experience, government science puts a stronger emphasis on teamwork and flexibility than the autonomy that is expected in academia.


How did you get your first job out of academia? I thought long and hard about exactly why a Ph.D. was essential to me and exactly what kind of work best fit my personality and motivations before committing to it. That led me to spearheading an agreement with my graduate institution (University of Wisconsin – Madison) in which I was able to complete my doctoral thesis research in a government agency (USGS National Wildlife Health Center). The experience I gained and network I developed within the federal system as a graduate student were invaluable to me in ultimately transitioning into my current position as a government scientist. Of course, not everyone thinks that far ahead about their first job out of graduate school, but I think the important message here is that “thinking outside of the box” can be applied at any stage of one’s career search or transition (I’ve expanded on this a bit more in my response to the final question below).


Tell us about your academic background. I completed a B.S. degree in biology and chemistry at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point (UWSP) and then M.S. and M.P.H. degrees at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I earned my Ph.D. at UW – Madison through a cooperative agreement with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center. After completion of my Ph.D., I was awarded a USGS Mendenhall Research Fellowship in 2014.


As mentioned above, our research is focused on environmental prion transmission and contamination. One question we are particularly interested in right now is whether chronic wasting disease (CWD), a prion disease of deer, elk, and moose species, is able to jump the species barrier and infect other wildlife. In experimental challenge studies, we’ve found that four native North American scavenging rodent species are highly susceptible to CWD, implicating a possible role for these animals as reservoir, vector or bridge species for CWD on the landscape. We are also currently investigating prion uptake in plants and working to characterize a prion-degrading serine protease we discovered in lichens as a novel anti-prion agent.


What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking for a job now? Know yourself and blaze your own trail if that’s what needs to happen to get where you want to be. When I decided to return to school to pursue my Ph.D., I knew which scientists I wanted to work with to carry out my thesis research. The only problem was that they were government scientists, and government agencies don’t hand out graduate degrees. After taking it upon myself to present my “alternate Ph.D. path” to graduate programs at the nearest research university, identify a resident professor with similar research interests who agreed to serve as my academic thesis advisor, and serve as the point of contact for logistical and information flow between my academic and government institutions, I was on my way to earning my Ph.D. in a non-academic setting, which set me up ideally to transition into the government scientist position I hold now.


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