Though she has always been interested in scientific research, it was an experience far outside the lab that helped Katie Nicholas, ’10, discover her future career aspirations.

During the summer of her sophomore year, Nicholas, a biochemistry major and Science Scholar, spent a month volunteering in a women’s HIV/AIDS clinic in Tanzania. Her trip was funded through a Carole Weinstein Grant from the Office of International Education.

Nicholas’ experience in East Africa made her passionate about studying immunology and the pathology of disease to help people in developing countries.

This fall, she will begin an interdisciplinary graduate program in the biomedical and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. After two years of classes she will be able to choose a department in which to pursue her Ph.D. She says will most likely choose microbiology and immunology so she can pursue a career in international humanitarian-based research.

After earning her doctorate, Nicholas hopes to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or in another government-sponsored job, “using scientific research in a way that goes along with humanitarian efforts, and definitely in an international context,” she says. “For me, my motivation is being be to engage with the community you are doing [research] for.”

Volunteering in Africa was a life-changing experience for Nicholas. “[It] totally impacted my junior and senior year,” she says. “I became much more active and engaged in more ethnically diverse aspects of Richmond.”

Nicholas is a representative on the Diversity Roundtable, is on the diversity committee for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and volunteers regularly at Overby-Sheppard Elementary School in the city of Richmond. She has also befriended students from Tanzania so that she can practice speaking Swahili with them.

Nicholas initially resisted the idea of attending the University of Richmond because her brother, Tom, ’07, went here. She grudgingly agreed to give it a look, and changed her mind once she learned about the opportunities for undergraduate research at Richmond.

“Other schools maybe let undergraduates do bench work,” she says, “but I got a different sense when I interviewed here. The push for research and how openly they talked about it being a primarily undergraduate institution, and a hands-on institution, was unparalleled. And to see that absolutely follow through and be true, even during my freshman year where professors would say, ‘Come talk to me if you want to work in my lab’ –– that doesn’t happen at other schools.”

With her summer trip to Tanzania, Nicholas took advantage of another of Richmond’s unique qualities –– its commitment to international study.

“I don’t know of many other schools that would [be able] to fund a trip to volunteer abroad,” she says. “To have that opportunity to engage with the HIV community in Africa was just incredible. … Being able to put names and places with the research you are doing can make it personal. That is something I want to incorporate into my career.”

Nicholas chose to spend a summer abroad rather than a full semester because she didn’t want to give up any time in the lab. She is a research assistant for Dr. Jonathan Dattelbaum, assistant professor of chemistry, and co-coordinator of the biochemistry and molecular biology program. His research involves studying bacteria that have been isolated from sea sponges from the Chesapeake Bay.

“We are looking to understand the importance of this bacteria to the sponge in terms of a symbiotic relationship,” Nicholas explains. She spends six to 10 hours per week in the lab, and last summer worked full-time as a research assistant.

After her experience in Africa, Nicholas realized that the research she’s doing at Richmond isn’t what she wants to do for the rest of her life –– but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

“I know the basic skills I am learning, and being able to engage in lab dynamics, will prepare me for the next step,” she says.