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Susan Zelasko: From M.D. to Microbiology

Wednesday, December 16, 2020
by Julia Buskirk

Susan Zelasko: From M.D. to Microbiology


Susan Zelasko, one of our newest Graduate Students at the Currie Lab! Photo by Piotr Zelasko.

Susan Zelasko always wanted her work to help others. From a young age, she decided that becoming a doctor would be a direct and powerful way to do that. “There are of course, a thousand-and-one ways that you can help and benefit other people,” Zelasko said, “But medicine always interested me in that it also combined science with that humanistic approach to helping other people.”

It wasn’t until college though, when she realized that research could be another powerful avenue to help others. During Zelasko’s undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she worked with Dr. Aditi Das in her lab. “She really opened up my eyes to how research can be a great tool for addressing some of the big issues in medicine,” Zelasko said. 

Instead of deciding between medicine and research, Zelasko is pursuing both in the joint MD/PhD Program at UW-Madison. Her first three years were traditional medical school, but she’s now transitioning to the PhD part of the program which has brought her to the Currie Lab as one of our newest graduate students! She’s interested in the drug discovery efforts at Currie Lab, as well as understanding how microbes work within our bodies and inform our health. 

Zelasko (pictured third from right) with the rest of her MD/PhD cohort after their White Coats Ceremony in 2017. Photo by Piotr Zelasko.

Zelasko’s research will be in collaboration with the WARRIOR study, or “Winning the War on Antibiotic Resistance in Wisconsin.” The WARRIOR study is an initiative within UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health to better understand how differences in people’s microbiomes––the many microbes that live within us and on our bodies––impact antibiotic resistance, a phenomenon in which bacterial infections can no longer be cured by an antibiotic drug because the infection has become resistant to it. 

By researching microbes that naturally occur in the human body, Zelasko will be looking at the tools that our bodies already have in protecting us against diseases. Understanding what our microbes do when faced with a pathogen (invading microbe) could give us insight into new ways to fight diseases that are becoming resistant to drugs. Certain compounds that our microbiomes naturally produce to fight pathogens could also potentially be isolated and developed into useful antibiotics.

An isolated bacterial strain that shows promise for potential antibacterial benefits (left) and oral swab plated on microbiological media and showing the bacterial community (right). Photos by Susan Zelasko.

Zelasko is also interested to see if there are any associations between a person’s environment, such as diet and lifestyle, and the types of microbes they have. She’s also curious to see if certain people’s microbiomes are more susceptible to pathogens; one theory is that if someone lacks certain beneficial microbes that ward off pathogens, they may be more susceptible to infection.  

“What really motivates me and drives me is addressing some of these bigger issues in medicine, like antibiotic resistance,” Zelasko says of her research goals. “It's not an easy feat. And there's obviously many, many smart and talented and hard working people who have been trying to address it. And so I hope I can contribute in some capacity to a better understanding of how our native microbiomes can protect us against invading  pathogens, including those that are drug-resistant.”

Zelasko in the lab. Photo by Michael King.

While excited about the potential impacts of her research, the shift from medical school to research wasn’t easy. “I do also really like and kind of miss aspects of medicine,” Zelasko said. “I think it was definitely a challenging transition to leave behind the clinical world, because I do really love interacting with patients and getting to know them and their individual stories.” She hopes in the future to be able to balance clinical work with scientific research.

Shifting to research has also had it’s benefits though. “I think research in a lot of ways challenges you to be creative and think a little bit more outside the box, which has been really enjoyable,” said Zelasko. She’s also enjoyed learning about the other research going on at the Currie Lab, which she says has strengthened her understanding of microbes and given her new ideas for her research. 

Zelasko’s absolutely adorable new puppy, Ellie! Photo by Susan Zelasko.

Outside of the lab, Zelasko enjoys running, reading, and hanging out with her new pup! You can follow her on twitter, @susan_zelasko.

Tags: #gradstudent #gradlife #microbialworld #MDTP #symbiosis #microbiome #MDPhD #WARRIOR #microbialcommunites #Covid

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