Unique Scientist: Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre

Time to meet Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre (She/her)! Dr. Milligan-Myhre is a well-rounded biologist and an assistant professor at University of Alaska Anchorage in the USA!

What kind of scientist are you?
I have experience in microbiology, including potentially pathogenic microbes and beneficial microbes, bacteria and eukaryotic parasites; immunology; developmental biology; and I work with an evolutionary model system. My scienc-ing style is scattered…I tend to work on several projects at once, trying to get the big picture while working on smaller side projects. I teach microbiology at the introductory and more advanced level.

What made you want to become a scientist?
Long story short: I was a premed major as an undergrad. I got a work-study position in a lab to beef up my CV. Turns out I loved doing research, and was not as excited about working as a medical doctor. I applied to grad school when I realized I really wanted to run my own research lab, where I could ask my own questions and mentor others.

“I am one of 98 Alaskan Natives with a PhD in…anything. I was the first, and as far as I know the only, Alaskan Native with a PhD in Microbiology, although I didn’t realize it when I graduated.”

Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I am one of 98 Alaskan Natives with a PhD in…anything. I was the first, and as far as I know the only, Alaskan Native with a PhD in Microbiology, although I didn’t realize it when I graduated. I grew up in a small town above the Arctic circle. Imagine a land the size of Indiana, turned on it’s side. Now take out all the people, and make the biggest town about 3000 people, mostly Native Alaskan. Add 12 other villages, all smaller than that first town, and don’t connect any of the villages or the town to any place else by roads. That is pretty much the area of Alaska I grew up in. Kotzebue was about 80% Alaskan Native when I grew up. Attending a school that had only 250 Native American students out of 40,000 students for my undergrad and grad school was a major adjustment. I am a #UniqueScientist because I am literally the only Alaskan Native with a PhD in Microbiology, and am a #WOCinSTEM.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I run, do beadwork, and recently learned how to skateboard. I even managed to have my first fall skateboarding!

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
I want to change so much about science. I want more graduate programs available close to reservations and all over Alaska so we have more Alaskan Natives/Natives Americans with higher education so we can answer the questions so important to Alaskan Natives/Native Americans. I want to decolonize the system, so that people trained in Western science don’t ignore the contributions of the generations of scientists that helped so many people survive for thousands of years in harsh conditions. I want people who aren’t scientists to understand what a labor of love science is, but to value it and fund it so that we can make more advances. I want basic science to be as valued as “translational” or clinical science. I want all the voices heard, so that we have diverse perspectives in the questions we ask and how we answer them.

“I want to decolonize the system, so that people trained in Western science don’t ignore the contributions of the generations of scientists that helped so many people survive for thousands of years in harsh conditions.”

Dr. Kat Milligan-Myhre

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
Della Keats was an Alaskan Native woman from my tribe who started traditional healing programs in Alaska. I didn’t know her personally, but learning about her helped me realize that Alaskan Natives can be taken seriously as educated leaders. Most of what I heard about Alaskan Natives growing up was derogatory. People (from Alaska!) said we are drunks and drug abusers, worthless, and if we had a higher degree, it was because it was given to us, we didn’t earn it. Della Keats had a higher education, and was not looked down upon for it. I also had two strong women PIs in grad school and as a postdoc, Drs. Laura Knoll and Karen Guillemin, respectively. They both had kids and were outspoken about the role women play in science and the need for a balanced life. Dr. Knoll pointed out that the biology history books mostly highlight white men because they are written by white men, and gave me behind-the-scenes looks at the struggle of people of all levels in science, while encouraging me to persist in science. Dr. Guillemin led a multi-disciplinary team of scientists who studied host-microbe interactions within larger systems, and showed me that women could lead large interdisciplinary teams.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
I booked a ticket home for myself and my kids so that we can spend some time helping my parents, picking berries and harvesting plants and fish. This goes toward the importance of work-life balance and maintaining my cultural heritage while leading a productive scientific life.


#WomenInSTEM #IndigenizeSTEM #NativesInSTEM #WOCinSTEM

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