Senior Biology major Katie Cochran is passionate about gut bacteria in squirrels and wants you to be too

If you spend more than a couple of hours with senior Katie Cochran, you are likely to hear at least one fun fact about opossums. Over the last four years as a Biology major with a specialization in Biomedical Sciences and a minor in Wildlife Rehabilitation, she has been ready to dispense her possum proficiency at a moment’s notice.

“Legitimately, they’re one of my favorite species because there are so many misconceptions about them,” Cochran said. “I get to debunk those myths for people and tell them why they’re actually really cool because they eat tons of ticks, so they slow the spread of Lyme disease, and their natural body temperature is too low to support the rabies virus, so it’s really rare to see an opossum with rabies. Everyone just thinks they’re gross, and they eat trash, but they’re actually a really cool species and I love talking about them.”

Luckily for Cochran, her time studying Wildlife Rehabilitation has given her plenty of opportunity to work with all kinds of animals, including May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center Animal Ambassador Opal, a Virginia Opossum. While Cochran knew she wanted to work with animals from a young age, it wasn’t until she came to Lees-McRae and had an opportunity to do hands-on research in the lab, and patient care in the rehab center, that she understood the world of possibilities that a career working with animals could be.

Cochran began pursuing a degree in Pre-Veterinary Medicine in her freshman year. As her knowledge of the field and her understanding of the different kinds of animal-related careers expanded, however, she decided to switch majors and pursue Biology instead. She said that this was largely motivated by developing a deep interest in multiple different career paths and wanting to avoid putting herself in a box.

“My time at Lees-McRae honestly gave me too many ideas of what I want to do with my life. I’ve been saying I want to be a vet since I was like 12. That’s all I wanted to do in middle school, high school, and the first half of college, so I honestly didn’t even bother to think about other jobs or experiences,” Cochran said. “I do still love animals, and I’d like to work with animals, but in a partial lab setting. I’ve spent four years learning wildlife rehab and I don’t want to lose those skills. I wish there was a job that existed where I could do wildlife research, antimicrobial resistance research, and be a vet.”

Opal the Virginia Opossum is a non-releasable Animal Ambassador at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Animal Ambassadors cannot be released into the wild for a number of reasons, so many of them stay at the center and are used for educational purposes and community presentations.

While her love of animals tracks back almost 10 years, Cochran has developed a new love during her time at Lees-McRae: lab research. Although she said she considered working in a lab boring in high school, today she has a passion for ascertaining information in a scientific setting, one that has been encouraged by the countless hours she spent in the lab during her junior year studying antibiotic resistance in squirrels.

In 2021 Cochran dove head-first into a research project that had been started by a former classmate for her own senior research the previous year. According to Cochran, the project turned out to be even more demanding than expected, and when the initial researcher graduated, she asked Cochran to take over. After applying for and receiving a research grant through North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU), Cochran got to work in the lab.

She began studying the effects of antibiotics on the gut microbiome of Eastern Grey Squirrels and determining whether the bacteria found in local squirrels was resistant to any of the antibiotics that were commonly used in the rehab center and throughout veterinary medicine.

Cochran collected fecal samples from Eastern Grey Squirrel patients that came through the center, and tested samples collected before antibiotic treatment began, on days one, three, five, and seven of a week-long antibiotic cycle, and two days after the cycle was complete. The fecal samples were processed with solutions that diluted them down to isolate a single bacterium. After each dilution, the sample was allowed to grow in a petri dish so Cochran could determine if the bacterium had been properly isolated. If it was, she would conduct a series of biochemical tests to double check for isolation, and then send it off to a third-party lab to be identified.

Cochran spent many hours doing hands-on research in the lab studying antibiotic resistance. This included collecting samples from patients, testing bacteria, and keeping extensively detailed records.

Following identification, Cochran tested the bacterium for antibiotic resistance by placing small, antibiotic-treated disks in the dish with the sample and monitoring the bacterium’s growth patterns. If bacteria grew up to or on the disk that meant it was resistant to that specific antibiotic. If a “zone of inhibition”—or an area around the disk where the bacteria could not grow—was displayed, the antibiotic was working effectively against it.

Cochran tested six commonly used antibiotics, including penicillin and clindamycin, against several bacteria, some of which were unable to be identified. Some of the commonly isolated bacteria she found in the samples were yeast, salmonella, and E. coli. While most of the tests displayed some level of antibiotic effectiveness, Cochran said there were a few surprising results.

“One of the tests I did, whichever bacteria it was, was resistant to all six antibiotics, which was kind of scary. The fact that there are squirrels out there that are already resistant to antibiotics is alarming,” Cochran said. “It’s an ever-changing field. I had been asking Dr. Amber why we don’t use other antibiotics we have, and she said there is one called Baytril that used to be used often in wildlife medicine, but people have figured out that there is antibiotic resistance to it, so now we don’t use it as often because it’s not effective.”

While Cochran said the work of a researcher studying antibiotic resistance can never truly be complete, findings like hers could be indicative of a need for changes and updates in the field such as the introduction of a new antibiotic to veterinary and wildlife medicine. Now, Cochran is continuing to apply the knowledge and expertise she gained throughout this study to her own senior research project, a case study review on antimicrobial resistance. While similar to antibiotic resistance, antimicrobial resistance also covers viruses and fungi.

Not only did Cochran make discoveries that could impact the field of wildlife and veterinary medicine through her research, but she also made discoveries about herself and the paths she would like to pursue following graduation. She said the hands-on experience in both the rehab center and the lab helped her develop a new passion for research.

Although now, leading up to commencement in May, Cochran said she has more career goals than she did when she first stepped foot on the Lees-McRae campus, she is excited about the wealth of opportunities in front of her.

“When I was reading through some of the abstracts of the papers I’m using for my senior research I called my sister and was like, ‘I lowkey want to do this for the rest of my life,’” Cochran said. “I have interests in so many things related to animals and veterinary medicine and lab research, so I haven’t really narrowed down one thing that I want to do forever, but I definitely feel like the research experience that I have gotten to do gave me inspiration for something I might like to do long-term.”

By Maya JarrellMarch 24, 2023