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Double celebration for mother-daughter graduates

Courtney Davies and her mother Johanne Kahlenberg, who both graduated today in Auckland.

Mothers and daughters share a lot. Courtney Davies and her mum Johanne Kahlenberg got the privilege of sharing graduation. 

Master of Natural Sciences student Courtney Davies first set foot on the campus to return her mother’s text books to the library, but soon she would be returning her own books too.

Always interested in the natural world around her, Miss Davies chose to study science. “I truly believe that the world is led by microbes,” she says. “From bacteria that rule agriculture, viruses that have the power to shape populations and yeasts that can turn simple dough into bread, we rely on the microbes that are all around us, so it was exciting to be able to learn more about what makes our world tick.”

Her study eventually led her to look at bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria).

“I first learned about phages through a ‘phage hunt’ course where we were able to take a soil sample, isolate these viruses and then sequence and name them! It was the epitome of hands-on science and I really enjoyed the whole problem-solving process from start to finish. I continued this research into summer school – so it was a natural progression into a Masters topic.”

Dr Heather Hendrickson, who first introduced her to the study of viruses, enabled her to continue this research through summer school and complete her Masters’ thesis in her laboratory. Her thesis looked into isolating bacteriophages’ lytic proteins, attaching them to biodegradable nanobeads and testing them against a closely-related bacteria to mycobacterium tuberculosis as a prophylactic defense against bacterial infection.

“In layman's terms, I found the mechanism that phages use to kill bacteria and attached it to a very small biodegradable nanobead to use as a spray or coating for things like hospital masks and areas where bad bacteria can interact with a surface and potentially harm people.

“We hoped that this would be an alternative to antibiotics, given the increasing rate of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, along with a cost-efficient tool to reach developing nations and the health care professionals who work there. Not all viruses are bad and in this case the bacteriophages were really helpful in targeting ‘bad bacteria’. Because of the impeding threat of antibiotic resistance, I wanted to take advantage of the relationship between bacteriophages and bacteria as an alternative to antibiotics. One of the main goals was to be able to develop this biotechnology as a spray where health care workers would have this as an extra coating on their hospital masks to gain better protection in the field.”

“My research topic was something that had never been investigated before, which often made for difficult and frustrating trials in the lab. However, knowing that what I was doing was so different made the effort really rewarding and it was exciting to see the project develop into a promising prophylactic tool.”

Making the most of your time

Miss Davies achieved a lot in her short time at Massey, including a full scholarship for study, representing her phage-hunt class at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute SEA-PHAGES Symposium, and travelling to Peru as part of the New Zealand APEC Voices of the Future Team. She also found time to compete in Massey Women's Hockey team, and recently returned from the Red Sea Summer programme at KAUST University in Saudi Arabia, where she combined her passion for microbiology and marine biology with a select team of graduates from universities around the world.

“If I had to do it again it would be a case of reminding myself that negative results are still results and the beauty of science lies in its unpredictability and spontaneity, so not everything will always work the first time around – that’s why we collaborate and replicate. From the beginning, Massey University has allowed me to explore different areas, from economics through to statistics, which opened up so many doors and opportunities to know what direction I really want to go in whilst combining everything I have learned.

“It goes without saying that my Masters supervisor, Dr Heather Hendrickson, has been incredibly supportive and has always gone beyond just being a supervisor to present us with many opportunities to develop and succeed.”

From here, Miss Davies is in the process of exploring a PhD topic for the near future.

“Beyond university I am continuing to grow my agricultural involvement through my Ayrshire cattle stud as well as working as an environmental and scientific educator in various Auckland schools. Both my parents have been instrumental with their support towards my studies. It will be fantastic to graduate alongside my mum, who first introduced me to Massey when I was still in school.”

Like mother, like daughter

Bachelor of Applied Science (Agribusiness) student Johanne Kahlenberg says it will be a great honour and delight to graduate with her daughter, “not to mention a lot of fun!” I held back graduating until now so we could do this together with her Masters.”

Mrs Kahlenberg says curiosity led her to study. Owning a Spanish Horse stud, she was intrigued to learn more about the science and management side.

“I saw an equine paper on a friend's table and we began discussing various feeding regimes before I realised I really wanted to know more. This led me to enrolling in that particular paper, which lead to another paper and before I knew it, I was half way through a degree! We never stop learning per se, it’s just that there was structure, assignments, deadlines and exams. These were just added to day-to-day life.”

Highlights for her included; “small but significant achievements such as getting through a study plan while on a plane, completing an exam in the library of a different country and, finally, submitting the last two practical assignments! Studying part-time through distance meant great flexibility but also the temptation to defer study, so the degree took a bit longer than anticipated! Life did occasionally provide the odd speed bump with family, a farm and a job, but it was definitely worth it to be able to walk across that stage.”

And like her daughter, she says she is not done with Massey yet.

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