March 7, 2017

Purdue Profiles: Kari Clase

Kari Clase Kari Clase, professor in the Polytechnic Institute and College of Agriculture. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca Wilcox) Download image

Kari Clase's research has taken her to the other side of the world and back.

A professor in the Polytechnic Institute and College of Agriculture at Purdue's West Lafayette campus, Clase is also the director of the Biotechnology Innovation and Regulatory Science (BIRS) Center and leads Purdue's Master of Science in Technology Leadership and Innovation BIRS program in Moshi, Tanzania.

Her research focuses on biological engineering and cellular and biomolecular engineering, extending the outcomes of her research into the real world. She works to improve health on a global scale and give students in both Indiana and Africa the resources they need to enhance health and medicine.

What do you focus on in your research area?

We look at cancer and brain tumors, glioblastoma and mycobacteriophages, or viruses that infect bacteria. We’re looking to find molecules that help control decision points in both the cancer system and the mycobacteriophage system. In better understanding those critical decision points with different molecular markers, we hope to be able to better control cancer progression and treatment and also be able to better understand the bacterial and phage system, which can then develop technologies that can be applied to other systems. Broadly, what’s cool is that the research and outcomes from our projects help us to better understand how even the smallest systems like viruses and bacteria interact. As we learn about DNA and genomes, we learn how they affect how an organism conducts its daily activities.

When did you know you wanted to become involved in this kind of research?

I’ve always liked trying to figure things out. I’m curious about how things work. As you uncover more, things are even more complex than you think they’re going to be, and it’s like putting pieces of a puzzle together. You want to be able to tell the story, but until you figure out all the pieces, you don’t really know how the story goes. The other cool thing is that the technology just keeps changing. Even once you think you have the story, you don’t have the complete story because the technology has changed, and you have to dig even deeper and look at it from another perspective.

What do you do on a daily basis?

I do a lot of different things, depending on the day. Some days I spend a lot of time teaching primarily undergraduate students, who are taking the class but also doing research at the same time. Other days, I primarily work with graduate students who are working on research projects, like the cancer research project. Some days, I teach a graduate-level program where we have students that are working in professional organizations and international regulatory associations, like in Tanzania. They’re trying to innovatively address current regulatory challenges. Other days I meet with them to talk about their research projects and what they’re doing within their organizations.

How are you involved with the master’s degree program in Tanzania?

The program started as a project when Sister Zita Ekeocha, a sister within the Medical Missionaries of Mary, reached out to Professor Steve Byrn in industrial and physical pharmacy to see if he would be willing to help equip students and regulatory professionals within pharmacy and manufacturing organizations in Tanzania with the knowledge they needed. It started through the Polytechnic Institute so that a master’s degree could be offered, which was when I became involved.

The program is an initiative within Purdue in partnership with the Kilimanjaro School of Pharmacy. It’s all Purdue’s degree, program and curricula. The program has about 45 students from all over Africa.  So far, we’ve had about 20 students that have graduated with their master's. The second cohort will graduate this year.

We deliver the program in Moshi much the same way that we deliver the program here. We deliver the same courses that we deliver in West Lafayette and work with industry scientists to make sure that the students working within the global environment of a developing country are equipped to address the needs and challenges. In the long term, we want to equip universities in Africa to be able to deliver the degree.

How do you hope that your involvement with this program will improve health in Tanzania?

In addition to students receiving their master's and working on an applied research project, we’re equipping them to be change agents because we’re helping them develop leadership skills, a better understanding and confidence in addition to practical knowledge. After they receive their master's, they have a network of professionals even beyond their peer group, industry scientists and faculty that they can now reach to for guidance and recommendations. As they take initiatives and move forward with the projects they’ve worked on, I think it will have a great impact on health in Africa.

Writer: Kelsey Schnieders, kschnied@purdue.edu


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