Story by Erik Potter

Wearing a white lab coat, Caroline Dunn stands in the lab of her mentor, Biology Assistant Professor Pam Brown.
Caroline Dunn. Photo by Mikala Compton

Caroline Dunn grew up wanting to be a novelist. Then high school biology class happened.

She learned how scientists cloned a human gene and spliced it into a bacterium, which then produced human insulin for diabetics. “Biology is weird!” she thought. She had to know more.

The Houston, Missouri, native came to Mizzou as part of the Discovery Fellows Program for undergraduate researchers in the Honors College.

Dunn spent freshman year in the lab of Abe Eisenstark at the Mizzou-affiliated Cancer Research Center. She worked with phages, which are viruses that attack bacteria. Phages kill bacteria and leave dead zones behind, called plaque. Sometimes this plaque is visible and sometimes not. As a training project, Dunn was trying to see if they could alter a phage to make its invisible plaque visible.

One day she pulled her bacteria out of their incubator, looked at them and saw they were dotted with clear spots — plaque. “Even though it wasn’t a huge, amazing discovery, and I knew it wouldn’t influence things, there was still a moment where I knew something that no one else in the world knew,” Dunn says.

She was intoxicated. But she found more satisfaction in answering basic scientific questions than in chasing will-it-work-or-not cancer treatments.

Dunn had joined the Society of Undergraduate Researchers in Life Sciences. She talked at length with the club president and other members about her dilemma. She was grateful to Eisenstark, but her friends helped her realize she wanted to work in a different lab.

She joined Biology Assistant Professor Pam Brown’s lab and loved it, staying until she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biology earlier this May. She studied the way bacteria divide by examining the proteins involved in bacterial cell division.

Dunn plans to go to graduate school and become a research professor.