WSU fungus researcher Katy Ayers lands Fulbright to UK

Katy Ayers
Katy Ayers

Washington State University bioengineering senior Katy Ayers has received a Fulbright U.S. Student award to further her fungus studies at the University of Exeter in southwest England.

Her Fulbright scholarship will support her Master of Science program in advanced biological sciences and research into potential antifungal drug targets for Cryptococcus neoformans. It causes fungal meningitis that infects about 150,000 people each year.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling that this type of life-changing opportunity—the Fulbright—evokes,” Ayers said of her scholarship that brings with it a year in the United Kingdom starting in September.

Winning a Fulbright is the realization of a lifelong dream, she said, as is studying at the University of Exeter, home to the Centre for Medicinal Mycology and “working shoulder-to-shoulder with experts in medicinal mycology.” The experience aligns with her goals to research pathogenic fungi.

Ayers said, “More than anything, I am grateful for all those who have helped me along the way to the Fulbright.”

She credits three people in particular:

  • April Seehafer, director of the WSU Distinguished Scholarships Program, for counseling her through Fulbright applications essays, encouraging confidence in herself, and connecting her with campus resources throughout the process.
  • Her mother, Deb Ayers, for being a constant and helpful companion during her baccalaureate studies.
  • Her WSU faculty research mentor Alla Kostyukova for teaching her how to produce and purify proteins and understand how their structure might play a role in function.

“Fungi also produce many proteins, some of which may be responsible for their ability to infect people. If we are able find proteins that help infection progress, then identify the binding site, we can design a molecule to fit into that site and clog it up, preventing human infection.”

Her undergraduate research aligns with her career trajectory. Following completion of her master’s program, Ayers plans to return to the U.S. pursue her Ph.D. at MD Anderson Cancer Center-University of Texas Health, in Houston. She will be part of the molecular and infectious disease program. Ayers’ ultimate goal is to “get ahead of the problem of emerging fungal pathogens.”

“As global temperatures continue to rise, more fungi will adapt to live at body temperature. Our current antifungal drugs are not as effective as they could be, so I want to help prepare before we are in an emergency pandemic situation. My actual career plan is constantly being refined.”

Ayers came to WSU in 2021 after earning an Associate’s of Science degree at Central Community College in Columbus, Nebraska, her home state. While there, she grew a 7’6”-long canoe from fungus, papier-mâché molds, an inner wooden skeleton, and a hammock. That floating feat earned her recognition from Guinness World Records as well as Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

What drew her attention and a move to the Inland Northwest was the WSU Honey Bee and Pollinator Research and Education program’s research into medicinal fungus and its effect on viral infection rates in honey bees. Ayers’ work involved growing bee hotels as nesting habitat using medicinal fungi for cavity-dwelling pollinators.

“I liked the hands-on approach of the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, and I also knew I wanted a degree in bioengineering.”

The Fulbright is the second distinguished scholarship she has received in a year. In May 2023, she received a Udall Undergraduate Scholarship, becoming the first from WSU to receive it in the environment category. In November, she also was named a finalist for a Marshall Scholarship, another prestigious, nationally competitive award.

Ayers will graduate in May with also a minor in mathematics. In support of and in addition to her academic and research pursuits, Ayers is a MARC Scholar and a TRIO SSS member.

Her Fulbright U.S. Student award is the 68th received by WSU students since 1949.

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