Iowa State’s Young Ambassador for Microbiology Creates New Path for Service During Pandemic

Graham Redweik, an Iowa State University PhD student in food science and human nutrition and interdepartmental microbiology, has been selected as a Young Ambassador for the American Society of Microbiology for 2020-21. Photo by Whitney Baxter. 

By Ann Y. Robinson

What does a graduate student ambassador do during a pandemic?

Graham Redweik, an Iowa State University PhD student in food science and human nutrition and interdepartmental microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is figuring that out.

He was selected this spring as a Young Ambassador for the American Society of Microbiology. As the ASM’s Young Ambassador to Iowa for 2020-21, he is among a cohort of 38 emerging scientists from around the world. Their role is to represent the organization and its younger members, and to promote and advance the microbial sciences through networking and collaboration.  

“It is exciting to have this chance to be a voice for other students and think about what we need to move forward,” Redweik said. “But COVID-19 has definitely changed the landscape. It’s requiring some creative thinking about the activities we’re planning. What hasn’t changed is the goal of raising awareness of our field and improving the ability of microbiology graduate students to be successful in our careers.” 

The ambassador position came with an opportunity to receive funding to support outreach activities. Redweik applied for and received one of the grants for two events he planned to bring together graduate students at Iowa State and the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

“Interestingly, I based my plan on COVID-19 – when we just started learning about it, before it became a major issue,” he said. “I wanted to use it as a focus to discuss the importance of funding for infectious disease research and how we could promote science-based disease mitigation. So, there’s a lot of interest in my topic, but the outreach events are having to be postponed.” 

The postponements include his expense-paid trip to ASM’s national conference in Chicago, one of the benefits of the ambassador role. This year’s conference, unfortunately, has been canceled, but he’s hoping the opportunity might be extended to 2021.

Redweik received his undergraduate degree at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., where he majored in biology. He came to Iowa State in 2016 with support from a presidential assistantship to work with Melha Mellata, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition. His accomplishments led to a USDA predoctoral fellowship, which currently funds his research studying the microbiome of chickens as part of a team looking at the ability to modify gut microbes to elicit positive host responses.

“This includes studying the potential of cultivating beneficial bacteria to reduce harmful pathogens, such as Salmonella and E. coli, that can impact the health of the animals and consumers,” he said.

While working on his PhD, Redweik has been an active leader in Iowa State’s Microbiology Graduate Students Organization, serving as its outreach coordinator and president. The group’s activities have included working with a local elementary school to engage young students in science and inviting speakers from across the country to visit campus and talk about their research. The group had planned a 5K run this spring, which got canceled.   

“I am very proud to see my student selected for this prestigious position,” Mellata said. “Graham was chosen because of his accomplishments in both academia and research. This shows our students are competitive, and I am sure he will represent Iowa and ISU very well. Importantly, he will be a role model for other students, and the position will help prepare him to be a leader in the field of microbiology as his career develops.” 

As he looks to the future, Redweik already has a post-doc position lined up at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine where he will study tuberculosis and the mechanisms leading to the disease. That career option came from a chance meeting that started with a seminar presentation: Redweik was fascinated with the talk and had a chance to help with the speaker’s transportation. They talked, they stayed in touch, and she encouraged Redweik to consider working with her lab.

Encouraging his fellow students to take advantage of such opportunities is one of the goals of an ASM ambassadorship. Redweik encourages his peers to consider applying: “It’s a pretty easy application process,” he said.

“It’s really worth it to get involved locally and consider attending the national meetings,” Redweik said. “They expose one to so many different avenues in the field, including preparing to fight the infectious threats of tomorrow.”

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May 12, 2020