Student Spotlight March 2020
William Beckerson graduated from Georgetown College with a Bachelors of Science in Biology and a Minor in Business Management. In 2017, William received his Masters of Science in Biology from the University of Louisville. William is currently receiving his Doctoral Degree in Biology here at the University of Louisville with an anticipated graduation date of June 2020.
When I was looking for a place to do research after I finished my undergraduate degree, I ran across Dr. Michael Perlin’s research here at UofL. Mike works with some really fascinating fungal pathogens that infect carnation flowers in a very specific way. Most of these fungi can each only infect one species of carnation flower, even though most of these flowers are so similar in nature. This presented an excellent opportunity for me to start answering some of the questions I had about pathogen-host interactions.
In particular, I study how pathogens change over time to infect certain organisms. When bacteria, fungi, or viruses can only infect a narrow range of organisms, like how the bird flu usually only infects birds, we call their relationship with those organisms “host specificity”. Sometimes, these pathogens evolve in such a way that allows them to infect new organisms. A great example of this is the recent SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, more commonly known as the “Coronavirus”. While scientists are still trying to figure out where this particular virus originated, rare mutations can allow pathogens that normally infect other animals to start infecting people. When a pathogen becomes capable of infecting a new host, we call it a “Host Shift”.
While a lot of attention is given to pathogens that shift hosts to people, for obvious reasons, this phenomenon is not just unique to animal pathogens. I study these sorts of host specificities in plant pathogens. For example, right now there is a big outbreak of Fusarium, a fungus that is destroying the banana industry sort of like the potato famine in the 1840’s. As a matter of fact, plant pathogens collectively cause over a BILLION dollars of damages to agricultural crops worldwide. Every single year. So, my research involves figuring out why fungal pathogens infect certain plants, so that we can use that information to prevent these types of “Host Shifts” from causing lots of damage to crops in the future.
In addition to my work with pathogens, I am also very passionate about teaching, getting communities involved with science, and public outreach. As such, I often volunteer to speak with K-12 classrooms about my research, along with several other popular science topics. When talking about my research to kids, I often describe what I do as “studying what makes plants sick”, or as one student form a recent Skype a Scientist interview put it, I am a “plant doctor”.
4. What made you go into this field of study?
As a first-generation college student from a rural part of Kentucky, I grew up with little to no exposure to science in our public-school system. I first became interested in biology during an introductory course that I was taking as a general education requirement in college. During that class, I became fascinated with how microscopic organisms like bacteria communicate with the world around them. I remember thinking at the time, “How does something without a brain recognize when it is near food”? Overtime, this curiosity grew into a desire to know more about how pathogens recognize and communicate with their hosts. Since then, I have been pursuing these question at UofL, as well as sharing what I have learned with various K-12 schools in Kentucky and across the globe with the Skype a Scientist Program. I think, like most scientists, the reason I study what I do today is a combination of pure curiosity and a desire to contribute to the community.
One of the first awards I received during my dissertation work was a Chateaubriand Fellowship to travel abroad and work with some of our research collaborators in France. This was my first time traveling outside of the US, and the experience was life changing. I still collaborate with many of the friends I made during this fellowship, many of whom are co-authors on several of my research publications.
Chateaubriand STEM Fellowship 2016
I have also received a handful of awards from the University of Louisville for my contributions to the Biology department and course curriculum:
Introductory Biology Lab Development Award, UofL 2019
Graduate Student Research Presentation Award, UofL 2019
Biology Department Service Award, UofL 2019
In addition to my contributions to the Introductory Biology Lab (104), I have also worked with Dr. Michael Perlin, Adarsh Gopinath, and Dr. Gary Cobbs to revamp the Genetics Lab course material at the University of Lab, and together we have published a formal copy of the text book with two chapters that I created: the Cell Structure Lab and the Replica Plating Lab. This was a fun and exciting experience for me as an individual interested in teaching as a career.
Perlin MH, Beckerson WC, Gopinath A, Cobbs G. (2020). Molecular and Cellular Genetics: Laboratory Studies. San Diego, CA: Cognella Academic Publishing. 2nd Edition
Perlin MH, Beckerson WC, Gopinath A, Cobbs G. (2018). Molecular and Cellular Genetics: Laboratory Studies. San Diego, CA: Cognella Academic Publishing. 1st Edition
I have also published a handful of research articles thus far with the help of many wonderful collaborators across the globe. Some of these publications cover my work with host specificity in plant pathogens, and others cover my research into the science behind teaching and learning, otherwise known as pedagogy.
Host Specificity Articles:
Beckerson WC, de la Vega RCR, Hartmann FE, Duhamel M, Giraud T, Perlin MH. (2019). Cause and Effectors: Whole genome comparisons reveal shared but rapidly evolving effector sets among host-specific plant-castrating fungi. mBio. mBio 10:e02391-19 https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.02391-19
Kuppireddy VS, Uversky VN, Toh SS, Tsai M-C, Beckerson WC, Cahill CC, Carman B, Perlin MH. (2017). Identification and initial characterization of effectors of an anther smut fungus and the potential host target proteins. International Journal of Molecular Science. 18, 2489 https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms18112489
Beckerson WC, Anderson JO, Perpich JD, Yoder-Himes D. (2020). An Introvert’s Perspective: Analyzing the impact of active learning on social personalities in an upper-level biology course. Journal of College Science Teaching. 49:3, 47-57 https://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/4/jcst20_049_03_47
While one certainly hopes that their research will have a positive effect on the world as a whole, the truth of the matter is that science is very much a slow, methodical process. I like to describe it as a perpetual step ladder. Discoveries that have a dramatic effect on the course of the world, things like the discovery of antibiotics or CRISPR technology, are exceedingly rare. Instead, most scientific discoveries benefit the world in incremental ways. While my research may or may not one day lead to ground-breaking revelations in preventing disease outbreaks, it will certainly be used by future scientists as a starting point for their own discoveries, just as countless other past scientists have laid the foundation for my current work. Science is therefore a community effort at its core, and every new discovery serves as another rung in the proverbial ladder for future generations. While the research of most scientists will not impact the lives of everyone globally, we can impact the lives of those around us in a positive way through public outreach and teaching. Therefore, I put a lot of stock into forming collaborative opportunities between research groups and with the community. This helps foster the sharing of scientific ideas and helps members of the community live better lives. I hope through my pedagogical research and outreach, and some of the community science platforms I am establishing for the next phase of my career, that I can be a force for positive change in society. Who knows, maybe some other first-generation college student will be inspired in one of my classes and go on to be a scientist, just as I did.
One of my goals for the near future is to establish a community science initiative with Dr. Charissa de Bekker at the University of Central Florida. After finishing with my dissertation work in plant pathogens this summer, I will be joining her lab at UCF to study an incredibly fascinating animal pathogen system, known to some as “Zombie Ants”. If you are unaware of these amazing host-specific pathogens, they consist of Ophiocordyceps fungi that infect ants and actually modify the ants’ behaviors in a way that allows the fungus to spread its spores more efficiently. Using this pop-science system, we have developed a community science platform called the “Zombie Fungus Foray” in partnership with UCF, its First-Generation Program, and its Hispanic Initiative, which we hope to use to get the local community involved in finding zombified ants using the iNaturalist app and teach them about science and critical thinking in the process. By studying these behavior-modifying fungi with the help of the community, we hope to find chemicals that could be used to treat behavioral disorders.
I think the accomplishment I am most proud of during my dissertation work with UofL was a successful group effort between Dr. Michael Perlin, Hector Mendoza, Joseph Angermeier, and I to establish funding for an international exchange of students with our research collaborators in Germany. Together, the four of us wrote and received a grant from the National Science Foundation called the International Research Experiences for Students grant (IRES) that funds up to 7 students per year to travel abroad to Germany for research every summer. The reason I am most proud of this effort is in large part due to the opportunities that it provides to students to travel outside the US and experience other parts of the world in a way that fosters the exchange of life experiences, different ways of thinking, and scientific collaboration. It was a wonderful experience to work with other labs in Germany and to experience their culture.
My favorite part of my graduate school experience at UofL is all the different places I traveled to and all the collaborative efforts I was a part of, both with other faculty here at UofL and abroad with our collaborators in France and Germany. I have met and worked with so many amazing individuals and experienced so many life changing things during my time at UofL.
Graduate students in the US face a myriad of psychological issues, including depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome. While the source of these issues can arise from a wide range of different places, from financial insecurity to a simple pressure to perform well in your program, nearly all graduate students face them to various degrees during their program. One of the best ways to deal with these as a student is to recognize that you are not alone in dealing with these issues. I have dealt with a fair share of anxiety during my dissertation, but one thing that has been helpful to me was reading into just how prevalent these psychological disorders are in academia, especially in the US, realizing that experiencing them is normal and does not make you any less valuable as an academic, and talking with other graduate students about it. While there is certainly a lot more institutions could do for their graduate students in our country, participating in student organizations such as the Biology Graduate Student Association that we have here at UofL can be a great way to interact with other students going through the same things you are and build a support group.
I have a wonderful, intelligent, and supportive wife (Mary Beckerson) and two silly little dogs (Sneaker and Wicket).
A talent you have always wanted: I have always been terrible with languages. I can currently speak Spanish, French, and German at a very basic level, but I have always wanted to be more fluent and able to carry on a conversation with others in their native language. I am always amazed at people who can speak multiple languages fluently!
Favorite book:I am a big Tolkien nerd, so I think my favorite has to go to Lord of the Rings; however, I also love Michael Crichton’s work, and his book The AndromedaStrain is a close second.
Favorite quote: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” - Isaac Newton
If you weren’t in graduate school, what would you be doing now? I thought about going to medical school for a while, and even worked in a hospital for a few years as a nursing technician, so it is probable that had I not gone to graduate school that I would be working in medical care. I have also heard that brewing companies hire microbiologists for quality control, so that is always a good backup plan!