Kirstin Cutshaw is a Biological Sciences PhD student at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) whose research focuses on quorum sensing in unicellular eukaryotes, specifically in a ubiquitous green algae known as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (C. reinhardtii). This comes after earning her BSc in Biochemistry from FIT in 2018 with a full-ride scholarship, and she began her PhD the following year.
Cutshaw is not shy about her non-linear path in getting to this point. After dropping out of high school, she completed her diploma in only two months at an adult education center and proceeded to work full-time in the retail and food service industry for the next 10 years. During this time, she got married, had a daughter, then divorced, but credits her current husband for encouraging her to go back to school, as he also assisted her in applying for financial aid at her local community college. Upon receiving her AA, she was awarded a full-ride scholarship to FIT, and the rest is history.
“I think I’ve always been interested in science, but I resisted the idea of being a scientist,” said Cutshaw. “I think when I was younger, it conjured images of stuffy, boring people in sterile labs and that wasn’t something I pictured for myself. In high school, I had a science teacher, Mr. Ethan Hall, who was really cool and laid back, which was the first time I had seen someone in the sciences not be a stuffy, boring person. When I went back to college, I had two mentors in biology at my community college, Dr. Jessica Schrader and Dr. Ramona Smith-Burrell, who helped guide me through what I wanted out of biology (and they are super cool women in science who are an inspiration for all I would like to be: kind, supportive and realistic).” Cutshaw praises her current advisor, Dr. Andrew Palmer, as being an inspirational figure in her life.
“He’s always so animated and excited for whatever is next in our research journey,” said Cutshaw. “He helps pick me up and motivate me when I’ve hit a slump. I’m still in contact with all of my mentors, who provide me with an overwhelming amount of support and encouragement. And, of course, my husband and daughter, who remind me why I’m still subjecting myself to this every day.” Cutshaw conveys she chose to pursue grad school mostly out of spite and believes this is more common than most people think.
“I had a lot of people in my life when I was younger who told me I would never be anything or do anything with my life, and I am here to prove them wrong,” Cutshaw explains. “That and I really, really love research and experimentation. Plus, I would like to serve as an example for my daughter, to show her that it’s okay to change your mind and do something different and that change can be scary, but it’s usually worth it in the end. Especially when you finally find that ‘thing’ that helps you wake up and be excited to go to work in the morning, as opposed to dreading it.”
Cutshaw said she chose to stay at FIT for graduate school due to a combination of her research and not wanting to move her daughter out of her current school system. Cutshaw says she was an undergraduate when her current vein of researcher was initially discovered, having been on the team that observed odd ways how the algae move, and she wanted to see it through to the end.
“Honestly, my favorite thing about where I am at is my advisor and the people I work with,” said Cutshaw. “We have an amazing team and recruit new team members all the time. I love helping foster the curiosity of the next generation of scientists.”
Cutshaw believes that mental health is the biggest challenge facing grad students today and thinks there should be more administrative support across all universities. She says that while mental health is supported at FIT, she still believes that graduate students as a while still need more.
“We aren’t research machines; we’re people,” Cutshaw conveys.
As for her future after getting her PhD, Cutshaw is still going back and forth, but is considering medical school so she can become a principal investigator for clinical human-phase research. Overall, she says she still has time to figure it out.
“Honestly, I just want a career that will let me do research and repay my student loans,” said Cutshaw. “Anything else is a bonus. I really enjoy doing research and problem-solving. I think I would love a government position in a research lab, but industry or academia would suit me just fine, as well. Anywhere I am working on research is where I will go.
As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!