A summer internship program aimed at getting underrepresented minority students interested in science careers helped shape her future. Kellyann Jones Jamtgaard, Ph.D., attended her first internship the summer before her freshman year of high school, the experiences gave her the mindset that she could pursue a science career.
Summer internship paves the science way
The internships offered many opportunities to gain skills from the diverse lab experiences, living independently, and learning from the responsibilities she was given at an early age. The program included staff, scientists, and students of color that looked like her and came from similar backgrounds. She was also introduced to scientists who became mentors, “I think it helps students to see mentors that look like them in science careers,” she said.
These summers left her wanting to learn more and showed her the possibilities of applying to doctoral programs and medical school programs, she said. Every summer she had the opportunity to work in labs at universities in different states and Canada, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and pharmaceutical companies.
During the experiences through high school and college, she was exposed to different science and lab careers. It gave her a sense of what it was like to work in a lab. “The lab felt like home,” she said. “I enjoyed getting to do experiments and interacting with my colleagues in the lab, and getting to discuss scientific topics,” she said.
“I knew I wanted to go to graduate school and do research. But it wasn't until I took microbiology courses as an undergraduate at Duke that the light bulb went off one day in class. We were learning about bacteria and I thought they were really cool and I decided that's what I wanted to study,” she said. This is when she knew she wanted microbes and their effect on human health to be her research topic and applied to microbiology graduate programs.
More than a degree
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from Duke University and knew she wanted to pursue a doctoral degree. She worked as a post-baccalaureate candidate at the NIH where she met her now husband, Louis Jamtgaard, M.D., who is an emergency medicine physician on the front line treating Covid patients in St. Joseph, Missouri.
He was studying medicine at the University of Kansas (KU) so she also applied to graduate school there and graduated with a doctorate in philosophy focusing on microbiology, molecular genetics and immunology.
As a graduate student, it was important for her to promote diversity in science, especially for women of color. A project she did, unrelated to her thesis work, was getting a childbirth accommodation policy passed at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Dr. Jones-Jamtgaard became interested in the project when she was the Graduate Student Council president and students expressed concern about the impact having children would have on their thesis research.
It was essentially a maternity and paternity leave policy, she said. It focused on allowing graduate students who are expecting a child via birth, adoption, or foster care to take time off from their research, she said. There wasn’t an official policy on the books for students to take leave or keep their stipend at the time, she said.
There was a lot of uncertainty for students who had a child, would their graduate assistantship and stipends be protected if they had to take time off for their children. She helped spearhead getting an official policy passed at the KU Medical Center. Students can now request official time off without fear of repercussions. “It was a labor of love in a lot of ways,” she said.
It was important to her that graduate students felt supported, and didn't feel like they had to choose between their careers and their families. Because of that effort, the student Diversity Award at KU was renamed after her, the “Kellyann Jones-Jamtgaard, Student Diversity Award. “I think that was, and still to this day, one of the things I'm most proud of. I hope I'm remembered as someone who championed diversity and making science as equitable as possible,” she said.
Her research focus in graduate school was the hepatitis C virus (HCV) which infects the liver and can cause liver cancer. Her thesis research focused on how HCV changes the way organelles move within cells.
“We used the virus like a tool to figure out what normal movement in the cell looks like, now we add in this virus. How does that change things? And what does movement of organelles in the cell look like now and what proteins are important for those changes?” she said.
The organelle she specifically studied were lysosomes, which are the organelles in the cells that degrade junk, misfolded proteins and keep the cells healthy. Asking the questions: How do they get rerouted after infection? And what is the impact that has on cellular health?
“My project was very basic science. I spent a lot of time doing cell culture, looking at cells under the microscope comparing infected and healthy cells, and looking at changes in protein levels and ribonucleic acid (RNA) levels themselves,” she said.
NYC to KC
As a Bronx, New York native, Kansas City was definitely a culture shock she said. It was very different from the east coast. She’s lived in Kansas City for 10 years with her husband and 14-month-old son. “It’s definitely home,” she said. “It grows on you. There are a lot of great things about Kansas City and having a family here.”
Dr. Jones Jamtgaard, Ph.D., wanted to work in science policy in the federal government which worked out for her when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) moved to Kansas City last year. In July she started working with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) through telework due to the Covid pandemic. She said she looks forward to meeting her colleagues in person eventually.
‘Training the next generation of scientists’
During the time she was in graduate school, she realized how much she enjoyed science education and communicating to students about why it's great to be a scientist. During graduate school, she started volunteering with K-12 groups, teaching students that science can be for anyone, and telling them whether they want to be a scientist or not, that it's important in our daily lives.
Her volunteering with students led to her first job out of graduate school. She worked with a K-12 education nonprofit group, PREP-KC, in the urban core of Kansas City. She used her personal summer internship experiences in the role at the nonprofit where she was in charge of the life sciences program. She worked with high school students and teachers who were interested in healthcare and science careers, exposing them to what all the career choices there are out there.
Many of the students think they want to be a doctor or nurse if they like science, she said. “I’m showing them that there's a whole other world of careers in healthcare, research, and other fields of science if they want to pursue them” She also organized the field trips, internship programs, summer camps and mentored the students. “It was a valuable and fun experience. My favorite part was when a student would tell me they wanted to be a microbiologist like me,” she said.
Her work with NIFA continues to build the scientific community. “What I love the most is as a scientist, I am helping train the next generation of scientists. I realized pretty early on in graduate school that becoming a principal investigator and having a faculty position somewhere and running my own lab wasn't for me. It wasn't what I wanted for my career, but I still really loved science. I also loved helping others find their career paths in science,” she said.
As a biological sciences specialist at NIFA, her portfolio of programs includes Hispanic- Serving institutions, Alaska Native and Native-Hawaiian-Serving institutions, and the Insular Areas, which are the U.S. territories and commonwealths in the Caribbean and Pacific, she said. Most of the programs she works with are providing grants to institutions to build the infrastructure and programs to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to go into food sciences and agriculture careers.
She doesn't do bench work nor is she in a lab anymore, but she still helps faculty members at universities with the grant writing process, She helps them figure out which funding from NIFA would help them in their research projects at their universities. “I still get to talk about science a lot. Keeping up on current hot topics in food science and agriculture. Also, I'm still keeping up with my scientific background and knowledge related to my projects at NIFA. But I'm not doing the research myself directly,” she said.