She’s just a typical genetics graduate student. Paid fellowship. Co-president of the Genetics Graduate Student Association. Working on three research projects, any one of which could be her Ph.D. dissertation. Holds an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. Worked for the Marines for eight years doing things like stress and failure analyses on CH-53E helicopters. Got her pilot’s license at age 19. Designed her own home. Climbs vertical rock faces for fun. Handles champion Basenji show dogs. Pretty average…. Well, maybe for a Keck fellow.

Susan Harbison is one of the elite NC State doctoral candidates selected by faculty in genetics, zoology and entomology for a W. M. Keck fellowship in behavioral biology. The program links molecular and cellular approaches to genetic, evolutionary and physiological principles for a comprehensive understanding of biological systems. Trainees are expected to emerge from the program as broadly educated scientists with a multidisciplinary view of behavioral biology and strong technical skills. “Our goal is to attract the very best students who will become leaders in shaping the future of behavioral genomics,” explains Dr. Robert Anholt, Keck Center director.

With an $800,000 grant from the prestigious W. M. Keck Foundation, the Keck Center in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has nine graduate fellows like Harbison who, in addition to fulfilling Ph.D. requirements in their home departments, are expected to complete a rigorous program including three five-week research rotations with Keck Center faculty. Keck fellows must also participate in monthly seminars with Keck faculty, attend monthly sessions with nationally prominent speakers, present their research at the annual Keck Symposium, and take additional courses in ethics, genetics, animal behavior and invertebrate model systems, insect behavior, physiology and ecology. They take summer courses at nationally renowned centers such as Wood’s Hole and Cold Spring Harbor, or in the NC State Biotechnology Program. They each teach one semester under the mentorship of a course instructor, and they must each author a peer-reviewed journal publication. It’s not for sissies. So Susan Harbison fits right in.

Not surprisingly, her research deals with resistance to stress. She studies the ability of the model organism Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) to resist starvation, hoping to identify the genetic pathways of stress. Harbison hopes her work will lead to information about related biochemical pathways in humans and, ultimately, to better treatments for stress conditions. After three years of study, she has identified 85 genes that affect variation in starvation resistance. She believes that these same genes affect resistance to other stresses as well.

Her advisor, Keck Center co-founder Dr. Trudy Mackay, speaks about Harbison as the ideal ambassador for the Keck program. “Like all our students, she’s superior academically, and committed to the interdisciplinary idea of our program. Susan is also mature, focused, very well rounded and interested in all aspects of science. Every teacher should have a student like her.”

Asked how such an active and adventurous young woman engineer chose watching flies die as a research project, Harbison credits her prize Basenji show dogs. “Wanting to help improve the breed naturally led to questions about genetics. I’m a curious person by nature, and I’ve always been very interested in science.” And what about the aerospace degree? Her father, who was an aerial surveyor, sat her on his lap when she was six years old and told her to steer the small plane he was flying. “I was scared to death, but I did it. And now I’m always tempted by something new to learn or do,” she shrugs. “I guess a geneticist would say I’m programmed for ‘novelty seeking behavior.’”

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