Graduate student finds her niche (and donor support) at UO

Kate Karfilis

Each year the UO Grad Forum showcases research, scholarship and creative expressions by graduate students in all of the UO’s graduate colleges and schools. In addition to providing participants with the opportunity to network with other graduate students, faculty and community members, and the chance to practice presenting their work in a competitive conference setting, the forum offers awards of up to $1,000.

In advance of the 2016 Grad Forum, which is scheduled for February 26, 2016, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Ford Alumni Center, we caught up with one of last year’s winners. Kate Karfilis won first prize for a poster presentation of her thesis examining the biological mechanisms that underlie the development of the muscular wall of the heart. She was one of 18 graduate students to win as much as $1,000 in donor-supported funds for her graduate research at the one-day conference.

A doctoral student in the Department of Biology and a member of the Stankunas Laboratory in the Institute of Molecular Biology, Karfilis has long been interested in understanding how our bodies and organ systems develop and how our genes control that development. Her research combines developmental biology and genetics.

We asked Karfilis a few questions about her research, her experience as a graduate student at the UO, her career ambitions and other areas of interest.

QUESTION: Can you sum up your research and describe the poster you created for last year’s Grad Forum?

ANSWER: I won a small cash prize for support of my graduate research.

The development of the heart is a complex, multistep process that begins very early in embryogenesis. Major morphological rearrangements are required to turn a simple tube-like structure into a multi-chambered functional organ capable of supporting embryo growth. This process of transformation requires coordinated cellular growth and communication by secreted growth factors (naturally occurring substances that stimulate cellular growth). Defects in this complex process can result in severe morphological abnormalities to the heart, and can lead to congenital diseases or birth defects.

The development of the muscular wall of the heart is one of several vital heart structures that requires complex signaling between two cell types. Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is believed to play a vital signaling role during this stage, but its exact function has remained undefined due to limitations of genetic tools to study this process. VEGF is a specific secreted growth factor/protein that recognizes its unique receptor VEGF receptor 2 (VEGFR2).

Recently developed, specific inhibitors of signaling pathways provide a platform to understand the role of VEGF in embryonic heart development. These inhibitors were originally developed for pharmaceutical purposes, as potential treatments for cancer. They are designed such that they block, or prevent, normal cellular signaling to inhibit cell activity and potentially halt disease progression.

Using this novel approach of VEGF manipulation, I have shown that loss of VEGF, via chemical inhibition of its receptor VEGFR2, results in dramatic morphological defects to the developing cardiac trabeculae that are present in the developing ventricle. Moreover, using an unbiased RNA sequencing approach, I identified several genes that were mis-expressed upon loss of VEGF signaling, in particular the protein coding gene Bmp10. Restoration of this single gene, Bmp10, to VEGF inhibited embryos partially rescues the morphological heart defects seen in VEGF inhibited embryos. Together these results suggest VEGF signaling may direct the development of cardiac trabeculae (primitive bundles of muscle within the developing heart) via regulated expression of Bmp10.

Q: Was this your first time participating in the Grad Forum? If so, what were your impressions of the event? If you've participated in the past, how did this year's event compare with 2014?

A: I presented a poster at the forum last year as well, so this was my second time participating. I was very impressed with the outside representation we had at the grad forum this year. It was exciting to me that these participants were not only qualified to judge the projects but were very eager to do so.  It was great to be able to interact with industry scientists and faculty from other departments as well.  These types of networking events are so important for senior graduate students!

Q: How do you feel the Grad Forum helped you with your academic and professional development?

A: The forum is a great opportunity for young researchers to practice our presentation and communication skills. It gives graduate students an opportunity to showcase our work in and exciting and engaging way to a broad audience, and hopefully receive constructive feedback on our projects.

Q: What attracted you to your area of focus? What are your career ambitions?

A: Developmental biology and genetics have always been extremely fascinating to me. Since high school I have been interested in understanding how our bodies and organ systems develop, and how our genes control that development. It was only natural that I ended up in a research lab that enabled me to investigate both! After graduation I plan to transition into more clinical and/or translational focused research. My interests will be best served in the short term as a post-doctoral researcher either in academia at a research hospital or in industry. In the long term, my goal is to work as part of a research team investigating novel treatment strategies for disease (e.g. drug discovery and validation).

Q: Why did you choose the University of Oregon? How do you feel the UO will prepare you for your future?

A: After visiting the University of Oregon for my interview, I knew this was the place for me.  At that time I was introduced to a number of very enthusiastic young researchers who made it clear that the opportunity to embark on new and innovative research projects was well supported by a strong administration and a very distinguished faculty.  I was also very impressed with the feeling of inclusiveness that each department extended upon my arrival.  I have had the benefit of several collaborations with students and faculty here, which will certainly be a springboard for my future career endeavors. These relationships will always be a source I can count on for future collaboration.  

Q: What are your impressions of your UO program? What's unique about your program? I understand you are involved with the UO Women In Graduate Science Group (UOWGS).

A: Yes! I became an officer in UOWGS during my third year of graduate school and was subsequently elected as president in my fourth year (I've held that position for 2 years now).

UOWGS focuses on the professional development of women in all disciplines of science, and enables them to become successful contributors to their fields. We accomplish our mission by helping our members (graduate students, undergraduates, post docs and faculty) gain valuable career skills through networking events, professional development workshops, and informative seminars. We also strive to inspire the next generation of young scientists through various community outreach programs. It is through UOWGS that I have made some of my greatest friends at the UO, and strengthened my connection to the University as a whole.

For more information about this amazing organization please visit our website at uowgs@com. I would be happy to talk more about this if you’d like.

Q: If you had one word of advice for an incoming graduate student what would it be?

A: I guess I would have two words for incoming graduate students: flexibility and confidence. First, as students (and scientists) we must be open to the unknown and therefore be flexible enough to accept the unknown. Second, we must be confident in our passion that will sustain us through the trying days in graduate school!

For more information on the UO Grad Forum, go to: