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Keene State Biology Student Working to Make Shellfish Industry Safer

December 1, 2015
Katie Kiley
Katie Kiley

Biology professor Loren Launen and undergraduate biology student and researcher, Katie Kiley, are working together at Keene State College to develop a greater understanding of a growing problem in saltwater habitat where shellfish are farmed.

Kiley, of Scituate, Rhode Island is working with Dr. Launen to sequence and study the genome of the bacterium Vibrio vulnificus, which is found in the mussels, clams, oysters and seawater from the Atlantic seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico. When ingested or absorbed through a wound, the bacterium can cause severe health impacts, including vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, a life threatening infection of the blood stream, as well as damage to skin and tissue. In 2015, 42 cases of V. vulnificus were found in Florida, which resulted in 13 deaths. More can be found here.

Dr. Launen and Kiley are working together to better understand why the pathogen is becoming a burgeoning issue in the U.S. shellfish industry, and what it means for keeping consumers safe. Samples that are studied are taken from New Hampshire’s Great Bay.

“In our lab, Dr. Launen, fellow student Sarah Sanders and I are looking at V. vulnificus in a more in-depth manner than has been done before,” said Kiley. “We’re taking V. vulnificus and we’re looking at the genome to see which strains have a chance of making someone sick.”

Kiley spent the summer of 2015 working with University of New Hampshire (UNH) team members Steve Jones and Cheryl Whistler to gain field research experience isolating the bacterium from water and oysters in the Great Bay. Kiley is continuing to study the bacteria she obtained at Keene State, focusing on genomic analysis.

Begin pull-quote…Since I’ve made a connection with Dr. Launen, I feel like my world has opened up. I wouldn’t have had any of the opportunities to conduct research at UNH and come back to continue with it here. It’s been a wonderful experience and an incredible ride. …end pull-quote
– Katie Kiley

Kiley said that she’s grateful for the chance she’s been given to work in the lab at Keene State with Dr. Launen, and at UNH. She said she’s well ahead of the curve in comparison to her classmates because she’s getting to perform work that is applicable to the lessons she’s learning in the classroom, which will in turn prepare her for the steps she intends to take after she graduates.

“Since I’ve made a connection with Dr. Launen, I feel like my world has opened up. I wouldn’t have had any of the opportunities to conduct research at UNH and come back to continue with it here. It’s been a wonderful experience and an incredible ride,” she said. “Even though I’m not interested in continuing with research right after I finish with school, the techniques and the skills that I am learning from working in a lab will stick with me for a lifetime. Keene State has given me the chance to see that I am unique and that my time is what I make of it.”

Katie said that in addition to being ahead of the game academically, she’s built a solid relationship with her faculty mentor, Dr. Launen. “I definitely feel like I have a close relationship with Dr. Launen. We go on trips to UNH and we go to American Society for Microbiology conferences to talk about our work,” said Kiley. “I don’t have a lot of free time but it’s going to be worth it in the end. Every time I isolate that colony of vibrio or I confirm it’s V. vulnificus, or we make a little bit of headway, or I get that exam back – it’s so worth it.”

The research project is funded by the New England Sustainability Consortium (NEST) Safe Beaches and Shellfish Project, which is funded by EPSCoR. EPSCoR is a National Science Foundation program that aims to stimulate research.

Keene State’s part in the project is fully funded by EPSCoR and the total funding amount to date for the College’s work is $53,540.