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Erin McKenney: A Microbe Love Story

erin mckenney

From an internship with Disney’s Animal Kingdom, to lemurs, to sourdough starters, to bear and other carnivore gut microbiome research, Erin McKenney has a diverse set of experiences revolving around microbes.

“I love the constant humbling that comes with studying microbes because they are single cellular organisms and they drive everything about what we do, whether we’re in a pandemic and we’re all wearing masks because of a specific virus or whether we are transitioning diets or trying to optimize health,” says McKenney, director of undergraduate programs and assistant professor in the Department of Applied Ecology. “It’s incredible to me.”

McKenney is also passionate about preparing her students for a bright future — whatever that may look like to them — and ensuring they feel welcomed and valued in her classroom and at NC State.

“I try to teach key marketable skills so that I know that I am not only sharing the joy of learning with my students, but also helping to promote their success beyond my classroom,” she says.

Move to North Carolina

After growing up in Indianapolis, McKenney moved to New Bern the summer before sixth grade when her dad was relocated for his job.

“It’s a far cry from Indianapolis, but a beautiful place,” McKenney says. “You can really get out and see nature. We just loved North Carolina as a state with such a diversity of locations. You’ve got the beach, you’ve got the mountains. You’ve got everything.”

McKenney received her bachelor’s degree in biology from UNC-Chapel Hill and initially planned to go to veterinary school. Instead, she pursued a six-month professional nutrition and research internship for Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

A ‘Clock-Racing’ Internship Leading to a Master’s Degree

For her internship, McKenney spent three days a week preparing meals that were carefully curated to meet nutritional needs.

“We prepared all the diets to be able to feed a thousand different animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” McKenney says. “We tried to get them out by lunchtime. It was clock racing. I got really good at estimating the weight of an apple in grams or kilograms.”

McKenney also worked closely with Katie Sullivan and Eduardo Valdez, then the lead nutritionist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This is where her passion for gut microbiomes developed. Sullivan went to NC State for her master’s degree, and she recommended it as a next step for Erin’s educational journey. After having a great meeting with Vivek Fellner, director of graduate programs in animal science, McKenney decided to pursue her master’s at NC State.

“I went into that meeting assuming I was going to study cows, because he studies dairy nutrition,” McKenney says. “And then he took one look at my CV with all of the exotic zoo work and wildlife rehabilitation from preparing for vet school, and he said, ‘Well, let’s get you a comparative zoo project.’ Vivek really took a chance on me. He was amazing. He was always encouraging.”

McKenney was co-advised by Melissa Merrill, and did research with her during the summer, including Sanger sequencing (now considered the “old school” gold standard technology). McKenney prepared DNA libraries for studying the gut microbiome across gorillas, baboons, chimpanzees and binturongs. McKenney also minored in biotechnology, giving her hands-on experience with a lot of the different techniques.

“I picked up a lot of tools and a lot of confidence through autonomy and just had amazing opportunities,” McKenney says. “I had really great experiences learning, ‘What the heck does it mean to be a scientist?’”

McKenney noticed the animal science program was very active and tight, and there was a lot of diversity among the graduate students. She remains good friends with other members of her cohort. The diverse students that attend NC State propel her passion as a faculty member at her alma mater.

Discovering Her Passion for Teaching

After earning her M.S., she pursued her Ph.D. at Duke University, studying the gut microbiomes of lemurs. She also started teaching at the North Carolina Governor’s School, a program for gifted high school students. McKenney taught natural science for seven summers and was the department head for four summers.

erin mckenney and a lemur

“It was really wild, but gosh, I love teaching,” McKenney says. “I mean, it just cracks the world wide open. Teaching informs my research in how I think about how I want to communicate effectively what we found, because otherwise, to me, it’s meaningless. And then my research certainly impacts my teaching.”

McKenney returned to NC State as a postdoctoral researcher focusing on microbial ecology and education research with Rob Dunn and the Museum of Natural Sciences. As a postdoc, McKenney led science research characterizing the microbial community ecology of 500 sourdough starters from 17 countries. She also partnered with local schools and businesses to engage hundreds of students in authentic scientific research.

The Importance of Students’ Differences

In 2019, McKenney joined the Department of Applied Ecology as a lecturer and academic coordinator, and in 2020, she was promoted to assistant professor and director of undergraduate programs. She teaches several courses to both science and non-science students. McKenney puts an emphasis on setting up her students for success by incorporating professional development into all of her course designs. 

She also strives to make everyone feel important in her courses and beyond.

“From day one in my classroom, you are important for everything that makes you unique,” McKenney says. “It can be intimidating to show up at a big school and feel like the only one for one or several reasons, but all of those differences are so hugely important and make our entire community stronger.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.