An Interview with Elise Kikis: Balancing Teaching and Research at a Liberal Arts College

Elise Kikis, PhD, is a professor of biology and chair of the biology department at the University of the South (Sewanee). Kikis is joining the QB3-Berkeley Professionals in Residence (PIR) program on January 12th and 20th. UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Lab graduate students and postdocs may register for Kikis’ events here. Kikis spoke with graduate student Anneliese Gest about her career path and how she’s learned to balance teaching and research, from her undergraduate studies at Cornell University, to grad school at Berkeley, and through her postdoc at Northwestern University to her current position at Sewanee.

Anneliese Gest: Could you give a brief outline of your career trajectory?

Headshot of Elise Kikis
Elise Kikis is the February 2022 Professional in Residence.

Elise Kikis: I did my undergraduate work in biology with a concentration in cell and molecular biology at Cornell University. I graduated from Cornell in 2002, and then I started directly in a PhD program at Berkeley, in plant biology. My dissertation advisor was Peter Quail, with the plant gene expression center. I spent five years at Berkeley, and I graduated in 2007. I moved on to a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University, where I studied under Rick Morimoto, and shifted fields a little bit at that point. Both as an undergraduate at Cornell and a grad student at Berkeley, I was focused on the plant biology realm, and then moved on to still thinking about using model organisms to answer basic questions. But the questions at Northwestern were more relevant to human health, and in particular neurodegenerative diseases and diseases of the aging brain—and that area is the research that I continue in my current position. I’m currently an associate professor and the chair of biology at the University of the South. I’ve been here for 10 years now; it’s a small liberal arts college on a little mountain in rural Tennessee between Nashville and Chattanooga.

AG: You started in plant biology, and are now using worms, C. elegans, which seems like a big jump – how was that transition?

EK: On the one hand, it was a jump because it was a different system. But on the other hand, as a plant biologist I had worked in different plant systems. I started out using unicellular green algae to study chloroplast gene expression so, that was my initial foray into research as an undergraduate student. And it was through that work that I got really excited about research and learned what it meant to think like a scientist, and from a practical standpoint, how to ask scientific questions, and then get into a laboratory and answer them. When I came to Berkeley as a grad student, my research direction changed somewhat. I used a different plant model, a higher plant model, to study the mechanisms by which plants respond to light. So, all through my career, I’ve used model organisms to study what I consider fundamental questions about how cells work, and how cells communicate information about the environment, and translate that information into genetic and molecular responses.

When I changed from plants to C. elegans, I had to learn a new model. But I wasn’t new to learning new models because I had used different plant models. In my current model, I think about how cells respond to things like temperature, stress, any kind of stress that can cause proteins to misfold. And the translation to human health is that so many proteins are the source of brain diseases—there’s all sorts of conditions that can cause proteins to misfold. So, the question changed, but the purpose feels the same.

And my most recent research trajectory is to study the effects of air pollution on protein misfolding. And in particular, the last few years have provided a lot of pretty extraordinary information about how pollution contributes as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. And we don’t really know why yet. And so, I’m trying to get at the molecular underpinnings for that.

AG: How has your training prepared you, or not, for your current position?

EK: When I started my career, I was very much R1 focused. But the closer I got to that R1 research institute sort of job, the less certain I was that that was going to make sense for me, in terms of where my passion was. I certainly have a passion for the science and for doing research. And in fact, one of the things I love about my job is that I still get to be in the lab doing experiments. I’m the primary researcher in my lab, I’m not just the PI writing grants and talking about science in my office, I’m the one doing it side by side with students who need training and an extra set of eyes, an extra pair of hands. And I love that I’m not running a big, high-powered research program. That’s not the part of science that makes me excited. What makes me the most excited is, one, getting into the lab itself and doing experiments, but also training young people who have never even thought about how to design an experiment and to sit down with them and say, “this is how I think about designing experiments. And this is how I think about scientific questions. Let’s try it this way.” And to see that first excitement when things work. And, of course, that first disappointment also when things don’t work. And even to be holding students’ hands through that, I find rewarding.

I remind myself that it is their first time with a lab failure because more seasoned scientists are used to experiencing disappointment. Of course the experiment didn’t work. Or of course the paper wasn’t accepted. But for students to go through that, it brings me back to my early years, which is always fun. I realized during my postdoc that I wanted to dedicate my career to earlier career scientists, to undergrads, who were still thinking about what a life of science would look like for them.

AG: Do you have any advice for trainees interested in pursuing a faculty position at a teaching-focused institution?

EK: In order to be certain that teaching was something I really wanted to do, and to also build a teaching portfolio or resume, I took on additional teaching roles as a postdoc, which was really helpful. I piloted a night class through the Northwestern continuing education program on the biology of aging. That was the first time I taught that class, and it’s one I’ve continued to teach since then, so that was a really good experience. I also taught an intro bio class not at Northwestern, but at another college in Chicago, where they needed instructors to teach a large number of intro bio students.

Then I got really lucky because at the time I was doing my postdoc at Northwestern, the biology department there decided to entirely revamp their undergraduate curriculum. This involved scrapping what they had and building a whole new curriculum from the ground up. A handful of five or six faculty were involved in that, and the department hired around 10 postdocs to work with those faculty members, along with a recent graduate from Harvard whose degree was in science pedagogy, as a consultant. This made for a really interesting team. I was on a team of a few people working together to develop a new genetics class. These experiences taught me that I could balance teaching and research because I was still doing my full-time research postdoc while I’m doing that teaching, and I think those teaching experiences definitely helped on the job market.

After those teaching experiences during my postdoc at Northwestern, I jumped into the academic job market with small liberal arts colleges as my target and I applied everywhere. So really, there were two key pieces of advice I’d offer trainees: first, gaining teaching experience definitely helped me feel more confident that I was applying for the right jobs for me, and those experiences helped strengthen my resume.

However, what I learned through that process, and what I’ve learned in my years on the faculty, is that research and a successful postdoc are probably more important than a teaching portfolio. We do expect faculty members to conduct research here at Sewanee, and if a candidate was not really successful in research at an R1, in a well-funded laboratory, it’s going to be really hard for that person to suddenly become successful when they’re on their own with limited resources. Someone new to teaching, who may not know all the best strategies for teaching a diverse group of students,  can grow into a great teacher at a place like this (a small liberal arts college), because we have the resources to help them develop their teaching. We don’t really have the resources to develop research ability – there’s resources to do science, but it’s not as much compared to an R1. So, I think that a track record of research success is absolutely essential.

So, my number one piece of advice is to take on teaching roles but keep it part time with research being the primary focus up until starting a faculty position.

The other piece of advice is for candidates who are already interviewing. It’s very easy to get excited about that first offer, or that first interview, because offers and interviews can be few and far between. But it’s really important to go to these interviews with an open mind, and also keep an eye out for potential red flags. There are places w     here even if a candidate gets the job, they may not actually succeed there. In other words, the tenure expectations need to reflect the requirements of the job. A department that expects four courses every semester cannot have tenure expectations that are based mostly on research.  That’s a position where you’re set up to fail. If you really want to do teaching and research, I tell candidates to stay realistic in terms of what they need in order to succeed and not to  take a position that won’t allow you to succeed in the areas that are important to you.

Elise Kikis earned her undergraduate degree in cell and molecular biology from Cornell University in 2002 and her PhD in plant biology from UC Berkeley in 2007. After an NIH-funded postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University, Kikis made the transition to teaching and research at a small liberal arts college. Now an associate professor and chair of biology at the University of the South (affectionately referred to as Sewanee), Kikis teaches courses in biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, and the biology of aging. Her laboratory uses the genetic model system Caenorhabditis elegans to study intrinsic factors, such as genes and aging, as well as extrinsic factors, such as air pollution, that contribute to protein misfolding. Her research translates to human health because many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, are associated with protein misfolding in neurons. She has trained more than 20 undergraduate research students, many of whom have gone on to medical school or graduate school in the life sciences.

Anneliese Gest is a PhD student in chemistry on the chemical biology track in Evan Miller’s lab, where her research focuses on developing methods for measuring voltage in living cells using fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy and voltage-sensing dyes. She is passionate about teaching science and science communication and has participated in QB3-Berkeley’s Science Writing for the Public workshop and has served as an editor for the Berkeley Science Review Blog for the last four years.