FRI Summer Undergraduate Research Program in Food Safety gives CALS sophomore real-world perspective

Tatum Satterlee, a sophomore genetics and genomics major in CALS, got an early start on her undergraduate research experience this past summer.

Tatum Satterlee, a sophomore genetics and genomics major, checks plates of Aspergillus flavus, a fungus known to produce aflatoxin, for contamination at UW–Madison’s Microbial Sciences Building in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS.

She was one of the youngest students selected for the 2019 Food Research Institute (FRI) Summer Undergraduate Research Program in Food Safety, during which students work full-time on a food safety project in the laboratory of an FRI mentor, learn about food safety issues through weekly tutorials, and visit food processing facilities. The program culminates with the students presenting their final research.

Satterlee chose to conduct her summer research on fungal pathogens in Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology Professor Nancy Keller’s lab. “I became interested in this topic because genetics is such a big part of it,” she said.

Her research focused on the fungus Aspergillus flavus, which produces aflatoxin, a carcinogenic toxin responsible for a large amount of crop contamination worldwide. She spent most of her research time comparing the production of fungal structures and metabolites between populations of A. flavus.

Participating in the summer research program broadened Satterlee’s understanding of research and its role in the real world. “During the FRI program I got to hear from a variety of professors about their research and see how food safety concerns directly affect production in several food processing plants,” she said. “Since I work only with fungus, I found it especially interesting to learn more about bacterial contaminants which I know very little about.”

Saterlee has continued her work in Professor Keller’s lab this fall to repeat some of the experiments in order to confirm her findings. She and her lab mentor, postdoctoral researcher Mickey Drott, are hoping to publish the results in an article on the population genetics of A. flavus.

Being involved in writing a research article at such an early stage of her academic career is just one of the ways undergraduate research has been a rewarding experience for Saterlee. “I’m grateful that I found a lab where I get to learn about genetics in an applied way and work with a bunch of great people who support my development as a researcher,” she said.

After obtaining her undergraduate degree, Satterlee is considering either attending graduate school or medical school. She said her research experience will be beneficial for either career path.

Saterlee highly recommends getting involved in research as an undergraduate, but she does offer some advice. “Expect to fail a lot. It’s just a part of the process. If you want to learn how to get better at failing, research is a great thing to do.”