Most people go to great lengths to avoid microorganisms that can cause great harm and even death. Junior Kylie Burke plans to make a career out of them.
A double major in biology and chemistry in the Honors College and a pitcher on the softball team, Burke spent last summer as an intern in the microbiology and infectious disease unit at Emory University Hospital in her native Atlanta.
Over the course of the summer, Burke had a hands-on learning experience that included work with some of the rarest and deadliest diseases on the planet, not only in the lab, but also directly with patients under the supervision of Dr. Colleen Kraft, a leading figure in the field.
For Burke, the internship continued a lifelong interest that was influenced by her father, Greg, a physicians’ assistant (PA) at Emory, who exposed her to different aspects of the field of medicine, and an innate curiosity about infectious diseases.
“When I was in high school, I started googling rare diseases that I’d hear about,” she says. “I started learning about life cycles and how infectious diseases were spread. When this internship became available, I thought it was perfect for me.”
As perfect as it may have been, Burke still faced long odds to secure the position. Even with a background that included four years working in a pediatrics office in high school and a rigorous college class schedule, Burke was up against competition from around the country, including students from Harvard and Stanford.
In the end, however, it was the combination of her academic prowess, previous clinical experience working with patients and class selections – including a genetics lab – that put her over the top. It marked a rare instance in which Emory accepted an undergraduate intern and the first time it did so in infectious diseases.
Some of the diseases and medical phenomena Burke worked with are the stuff of nightmares for laymen, even if they have no idea what they mean. She was able to see such rarities as a single leaflet aortic valve, gangrene and a brain mold in an immunocompromised patient.
Burke also collaborated with federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Homeland Security. Additionally, she assisted in the Ebola unit at Emory, getting a first-hand look at the creation and testing of postnatal procedures for treating affected patients.
Most college students are not shaped in the mold of a Kylie Burke. The majority have enough trouble navigating the demands of the classroom without the extra time required of a double major and a student-athlete. For Burke, credit for managing this schedule goes to two families: her immediate one and her softball one..
“My parents have been my biggest supporters; they’ve always believed in me,” she says. “And I’m very lucky to have some of the best teammates anyone could hope for. Having that group of women around me is a great lift.“
Her teammates reciprocate the feelings.
“Kylie has been tremendous for our program and our school,” says Izzy Berouty, a senior pitcher on the softball team. “She is not only intelligent, but selfless and compassionate. I am so lucky to have her, not only as a teammate, but also as a friend.”
While helping the Cougars improve this spring on their 26-30 record last season, Burke also has her sights set on working on projects with the outstanding Honors College faculty that will enhance her already formidable resume.
And as Burke finds her way in an always changing infectious disease landscape, what will she encounter as she moves forward in her career?
“It was a bit overwhelming seeing how much is out there,” she observes. “It was incredible to see how much knowledge there is in this field, but also how much we still need to learn.”
Clearly, Burke will be exposing herself to all kinds of things.