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2017 Issue 4: How we learn

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The exchange experience: Catherine Paul

The exchange experience: Catherine Paul

[photo of Catherine Paul with a core of sand]
Supplied photo

Dr. Paul shows a core of sand from a drinking water infiltration pond at Vomb Waterworks, Vomb, Sweden. She and her team collect samples to isolate the DNA and sequence all the bacteria in the biofilm to see which organisms are cleaning the water.

She thought she was bound for med school. But Catherine Paul's student exchange at the University of Aberdeen, which included poetry classes, led her to better understand how she liked to learn and to work. It helped her choose a career in research. Now, Dr. Paul lives and works in Sweden. She is a senior lecturer at Lund University's Department of Building and Environmental Technology (Water Resources Engineering) and in the Department of Chemistry (Applied Microbiology). There, she jokes, she has sideline in translating Swedish menus in the cafeteria for the latest batch of exchange students from North America.

Catherine Paul, Artsci'98, PhD'05, began her undergrad studies in life sciences thinking she was going to be a medical doctor. "I loved science and math at school, especially biology, and I had not had any exposure to research so I didn't even think about that career path.'"

In third year, she did an exchange at the University of Aberdeen, where she knew she could work on prerequisites for med school. 'The best thing as that at the time, Dr. Peter Aston (head of Life Sciences) told me, 'Go! Learn things! We will figure out how all the credits work when you get back,' so that was very freeing."

She took his advice. As well as epidemiology, tropical biology, and forensic medicine, she also studied poetry and Gaelic music history. And then she noticed her priorities shifting.

"We had few class hours, no labs, and a very free structure to work on projects and assignments. We got our poetry exam two weeks ahead and so I sat alone in the library and thought ... a lot. And wrote ... a lot. I was so happy. This began the shift I that I realized I liked working more alone and with my own structure, and with lots of time to think about lots of things. This was not the environment that I thought I would meet in medicine. I wanted to go deeply into things."

Back at Queen's, her fourth-year research project in microbiology and immunology with Dr. Keith Poole laid the groundwork for her PhD work in bacteriology with Dr. Andrew Kropinski. She later did post-doctoral work at Health Canada and the National Research Council.

A move to Sweden ... and a change in research focus

The move to Sweden gave her a sense of familiarity, geographically speaking, as well as the chance to switch up her research focus. "I remember looking at the globe and seeing that it was about the same distance north as Aberdeen. That gave me the confidence that I would be able to adapt to, and even love, the climate. I also wanted to shift from medically oriented microbiology [the focus of her PhD and initial post-doctoral work] to more environmental and applied research."

Today, Dr. Paul works in the applied environmental field looking at bacteria and biofilms in contaminated soil and drinking water preparation. "But of course our goal is to be sure that there is nothing to infect people in the drinking water and to clean up the pollutants, so in the end, I feel like I am working almost on the preventative medicine side. We use massive DNA sequencing with forensic resolution protocols – so my early class in forensic medicine comes into play – and flow cytometry to look at all the bacteria in drinking water and soils. Health professionals know that we need healthy, friendly bacteria in our bodies to be healthy. I study the same sort of ideas, just looking at the healthy, friendly bacteria we want to have in our drinking water and soil."

Read "The exchange experience: Tyler Whitney."

Read "The exchange experience: Sophie Fusigboye."

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 4-2017]