Meet an Alum

Phillip Burke ('14)

Why did you choose UNH? Going into college I was really unclear about what I wanted to do in my life. I choose UNH because the school has such a wide variety of programs. In my time here I’ve met a lot of different people, in a lot of different majors, and I’ve come to realize that not only does the school offer a lot of different options, but the programs are rigorous and competitive. I could have come to UNH for art, engineering, literature, history, psychology, physics, neuroscience, theater, you name it, and gotten a first rate education. I picked genetics and I haven’t looked back; science rules!

Did you know that you wanted to genetics when you arrived on campus? I had tentatively picked biology as a major going into UNH. 

During the COLSA orientation they announced that genetics was being offered as a major and I switched on the spot. Genetics was a subject that I’d been interested in for a long time, and it was something I wanted learn more about.

What was your favorite class thus far? Prokaryotic Genetics of Microbes, taught by Cheryl Whistler, has definitely been my favorite class so far. The class covered gene regulation and expression in bacteria. We studied both general bacterial regulatory mechanisms and some of the really neat methods that specific bacteria use to grow effectively, and respond to their environment. The class also focused on current research in microbial genetics, so we learned a number of techniques, commonly used in research settings, such as transposon mutagenesis, bacterial selection, and DNA extraction and amplification.The lab portion of prokaryotic genetics was a semester long experiment to determine the effects of various mutations on the virulence of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria with the potential to be a human pathogen. Our work culminated in a research paper on the effect and scientific import of the gene that we’d knocked out and identified in V. 

Parahaemolyticus. The course was incredibly challenging, and I learned a ton.

Which UNH faculty member had the greatest impact on you? Professor Estelle Hrabak has been my academic adviser since I started and has definitely had the biggest impact on my education here. Estelle is a great adviser, her enthusiasm for genetics research is boundless, and she is probably the most competent person I’ve ever met. Professor Hrabak also teaches the lab course Genetics 606, which is a comprehensive class covering a staggering variety of genetics lab techniques. It’s tons of fun, and the work that professor Hrabak and her teaching assistants put into the class is nothing short of heroic. Between teaching and working on her own research I have no idea how Professor Hrabak manages to keep up on all of her advisees, but she always knows what we’re up to, and what we should be doing to achieve our goals.

What activities related to your major have occurred outside the classroom that has been most beneficial to you? Last semester I began working in Professor Whistler’s lab, assisting one of her graduate students, Evan DaSilva. Evan is researching the role that siderophores, compounds produced by some bacteria that sequester iron from the environment, play in the symbiosis between the bacteria Vibrio fischeri and the Hawaiian squid, Euprymna scolopes. The research is fascinating stuff, so if you see Evan around you should ask him about it. Working in the lab has improved my abilities as a geneticist and has given me a good idea of what to expect in graduate school. Also, the Whistler lab is full of awesome people, and working there has been a great experience!

Describe something non-academic about which you are passionate.: I love bouldering! Bouldering is a sport that involves finding large and interesting rocks and then climbing up them in an elegant fashion. It’s like rock climbing on a smaller scale that requires very little equipment and focuses on using bursts of power to perform a few, very technical, moves. UNH has a small bouldering wall in the Witt and that’s where I got my start and discovered my passion. I spend a lot of time these days speculating on the various rock formations that I run across in my travels. After speculation on said formations, I usually try to heel-hook them. The climbing community in Durham is great; people are always willing to give advice to new climbers which helped a lot when I was just getting into the sport.