Alumni Profiles Series: Kathleen Caron

 September 6, 2017


Kathleen Caron

Dr. Kathleen Caron earned a PhD in Cell Biology at Duke University, developing mouse models of sex determination with Dr. Keith Parker. She completed postdoctoral training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, devising cutting-edge gene targeting strategies with Dr. Oliver Smithies. She is currently Professor and Chair of Cell Biology and Physiology at UNC-CH, where her laboratory uses gene targeting strategies to model human vascular disease.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up with a father who is a scientist at Duke. From the time that I was little, that’s what I wanted to do because I loved asking questions. So, I studied biology and philosophy at Emory and then came to Duke for a Ph.D. in cell biology.

What did you do after you left Duke?

My career transition was very purposeful. I had made a knockout mouse [deleted a specific gene] as a graduate student, which was something brand-new. One could interrogate what genes were doing in a mammalian system, with physiology and genetics combined. This was very exciting to me, and I wanted to learn new techniques. So, I went to UNC to do my postdoctoral training with Oliver Smithies, who later won the Nobel Prize for gene targeting. His lab’s real breakthrough was deleting the gene in a stem cell so that you could generate a whole mutant organism [lacking one specific gene]. I was fortunate to be on the leading edge of making knockout mice.

How has mentoring shaped your professional path?

Oliver was transformational in my career because he was so generous. He encouraged me to build something in his lab that I could use to establish myself as a scientist. I found some uncharacterized genes, and I made a bunch of knockout mice. I started my lab with those mice, and we’re still working on some of those lines today. The greatest contribution a scientist makes is training the next generation, and Oliver knew that.

How are your roles as principal investigator (PI) and department chair different?

In my own lab, I love reading papers, planning experiments, [and] writing grants. But I also enjoy helping other faculty to be successful, and that’s the job of a department chair. That includes finance, administration, human resources, strategic planning, [and] infrastructure. Both jobs, PI and department chair, are all about working with people.

Graduate students are often encouraged to develop “transferable skills.” What important transferable skills did you gain as a graduate student?

Problem-solving, which will apply to any job you do; effective communication, both oral and written; and working well with other people. In science, we work in teams, within a lab and with collaborators. Our individual scientific accomplishments, for the most part, represent only a small part of the whole.

What are your favorite memories of Duke?

Meeting my husband in graduate school and having lunch with him in the hospital cafeteria occasionally; hanging out in the lab at the end of the day; and, of course, basketball!


Rossie Clark-Cotton
Rossie Clark-Cotton

Ph.D. student, Cell Biology

Rossie is a Ph.D. student in Cell Biology in a yeast genetics lab, where she studies how cells track chemical signals. She also enjoys singing in community choruses and researching her family's history in rural Mississippi. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.