WHAT THEY LEARNED: Abigail Keller ’17

The biology major and environmental studies minor cataloged hundreds of microorganisms present on the surfaces of whales and corals for her thesis research.

Abigail Keller ’17, both in lab at Haverford and on the shores of Cape Cod, Mass., has spent the last year researching whales, corals, and the microscopic things that live on them. In her senior thesis, “Exploring Biological and Chemical Diversity in the Culturable Surface Microbiomes of Marine Eukaryotes,” she examined the “microbiomes” of certain marine organisms, the collection of microorganisms that live on their skins or surfaces. Her research, which she is continuing this summer even after her graduation, might make possible the identification of compounds that could fight pathogenic drug resistance.

“In addition to learning a lot about general lab work techniques and the organization of time, data, [and] samples,” said Keller, a biology major and environmental studies minor. “I also learned how it feels to take ownership of a project and how to be completely invested in something.”

Last summer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Falmouth, Mass., Keller conducted research with a scientist studying the health of whales and corals through their microbiomes. Keller spent this year building on that work with her thesis advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Kristen Whalen.

“Not only is [Whalen] the hardest working person I have ever met, but she is genuinely interested in the success of her students,” she said. “She is innovative herself, but also pushes me to evaluate my procedures, results, and development of future directions.”

What did you learn working on your thesis?

A lot of biology lab work is not the most thrilling. It is often moving small amounts of liquid from one tube to another… It is hard work, but there is nothing more exciting than eventually figuring out what kind of bacteria or fungus lives on the animals. Seeing my final figures displaying the hundreds of microbes I isolated and investigating their functions and ecological implications reminds me that biology is incredibly exciting, worthwhile, and important.

What are the implications for your thesis research?

I have a developed a large library of microorganisms, many of which are relatively rare… This library has an incredible amount of diversity and truly has infinite possibilities for further investigations. One of these investigations—one that I have begun—is exploring the microbe’s excreted chemical metabolites for chemical compounds that can mitigate one mechanism for multi-drug resistance in Gram-negative pathogens. Antibiotic pipelines are drying out, so being able to turn to nature to develop natural products is an increasingly advantageous tool in medicine.

-Michael Weber ’19


“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.