Fresh Faculty: Alexandra Purdy
Issue   |   Wed, 02/13/2013 - 00:09

Biology Prof. Alexandra Purdy grew up in Cape Cod, Mass. She attended the College of William and Mary for her undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry. She then took a year off and worked in Arcadia National Park in the summer before working in the Jackson Labs as a research assistant. She then completed her Ph.D. in marine biology at the Univ. of California, San Diego. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital Boston.

Q: How did you begin studying biology and what made you decide to pursue it?
A: When I got to college, I was thinking about doing a major in chemistry. I also really loved art history, and some of my favorite classes were in art history. For a little while I thought I might do something with chemistry and art history together, but then I took an upper level biology course in developmental biology, and that was just an amazing class. I had to work so hard, but it was just transformative. I was able to work in that professor’s lab and did an honors thesis. That was a great experience, and from then on I just knew that I had to be a biologist.

Q: Why did you decide to teach at Amherst?
A: The opportunity to come here was just amazing. When I met with the faculty here they were all fantastic. The students were just great. This is a fantastic place to be, to teach, to work on your teaching. It’s a place where your teaching is really appreciated, and that is something that I found very important when as I thought about what I wanted to do as a researcher and as a biologist going forward. It was a beautiful town as well. So, everything just came together. It was great.

Q: What is you research on and how did you become interested in it?
A: My research is on the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which is the bacterium that is responsible for causing the disease cholera. I started working on the bacterium in graduate school, where I worked on it more from an environmental perspective. I went to graduate school and got a degree in marine biology because I was studying this bacterium and how it lives in the environment. Then, for my postdoctoral fellowship, I was interested in continuing to work on Vibrio cholerae, so I moved to a lab that had more of an infectious disease focus. We started looking at the bacterium from a little bit of a different perspective. The bacterium is just amazing. It can do so many different things. It lives in the environment, it obviously causes pandemics, it’s been in the news recently, and so understanding how that bacterium survives in the environment is a really important research question.

Q: Are you currently working on publishing anything, or have you published anything before?
A: Yeah, I’ve published a few papers before. Right now I’m working on finishing up one paper from my post-doc fellowship. That should be wrapping up pretty soon. We looked at how Vibrio cholerae interacts with fruit flies. We used this as a model system to be able to do genetics to really tease apart how this interaction is working on the molecular level. So, that paper sets the stage for the research project I am continuing now. Now I am working in the lab to continue some of the research questions that arose as a result of that research and that paper.

Q: What classes are you teaching this semester? What classes did you teach last semester? What are they about?
A: This semester I am teaching Contagion which is a course for non-majors. That’s a course that looks at infectious disease, the biology of infectious disease, but also looks at some of the larger questions surrounding infectious disease, some of the societal impacts as well. We’re delving headfirst into the biology, but that’s not the only thing we are doing. We’re also thinking more broadly about some of the implications of the biology for the larger world.
Last semester I taught microbiology for majors. It’s an upper-division class with a lab. That was basically an introduction to the prokaryotic world. Who are these single-celled bacteria that we live with? What are they doing? How do they cause disease? How do they survive in the environment? How do they sense their environment? It was a wide-ranging course on microbiology.

Q: What aspects of Amherst do you like so far?
A: I’ve had an absolutely amazing time so far. I have to say, the students have been incredible. They ask really great questions. I love working with the students in the lab — that’s been fantastic. Not only that, but the other faculty have been so supportive. Not only in this department, but when I’ve gone outside my department to ask questions of people for teaching and advice about getting by at Amherst, everybody has been so generous with their time, and that has made me feel extremely welcome. It makes me think Amherst is just an incredible community, and I’m exceptionally lucky to be here.

Q: What do you hope to contribute to Amherst during your time here?
A: I had a number of really supportive teachers and advisors in my past, both in undergraduate and grad school. If I could contribute that amount of support to my students and support them in any way that I can in terms of helping them to figure out things that they would like to do in the future, that would be incredible. Also, I would like to have an active research program going so students can come into the lab and really get a feel for what research is. And if I can teach some inspiring courses, that would be just awesome. So, we’ll see.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: So, I think a lot of folks have commented on the lack of spare time. When I do get spare time, I’m enjoying exploring the area and finding out what’s going on in all the little small towns, what’s going on in Northampton. We just keep driving around and finding new places that we didn’t even know were there, and we keep hearing about places that are great places to go. We really enjoyed exploring Northampton. The other thing I want to do is hike the mountains that I can see in this incredible view from my office. I keep thinking I have to find these mountains and hike to the top and look back at Amherst and see the view from out there after spending so much time looking out the windows here. So, hopefully this summer I will have a bit more time.