Katy Metzler: Immune to apathy
Originally published 2013-02-21
Charles Monet’s disease began with a headache and backache, but over the course of a few days the flesh-eating infection progressed until his agonizing death within the confines of a Nairobi hospital.
It was this story — told in Richard Preston’s 1994 non-fiction thriller “The Hot Zone” — that first led Katy Metzler to ponder the possibility of studying infectious diseases.
The book — which details the origins and incidents involving ebola and similar viruses — was a reading assignment in Maria Kattnig’s sophomore science class at Gunnison High School (GHS). Previous to that, Metzler found greater interest in English and history classes.
“I think a part of it was the intellectual challenge that was presented in the book — pathologists and epidemiologists trying to figure things out,” Kattnig recalls. “Wanting to figure out ‘how’ or ‘why’ was framed into a career that she hadn’t seen before.”
This past November Metzler, a 2001 GHS valedictorian, earned a doctorate degree in immunology and infectious diseases at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany.
Since then, she’s continued her work in Berlin, staying on as a post-doctoral researcher.
The oldest of three siblings, Katy moved often with her family when she was young, to wherever her father’s job took them. When she was 12, the family moved to Pitkin, where Katy became captivated by the natural surroundings.
But at a much younger age, Katy showed a propensity for academics, her mother Suzy recalls. So much so, that as a young girl, Katy’s parents were forced to enact a limit on the number of books they would read her before bed.
“It would take two hours to put her to bed,” says Suzy.
Katy credits her middle school earth science teacher, Hap Channell, for first instilling a sense of understanding with respect to the natural world.
Channell remembers Metzler as “very focused academically, fun-loving and optimistic — all the things you want to see in a kid.”
Of course, the educator of 28 years is quick to pick up on signs that a student expresses interest in a subject at hand.
“They’re slow to leave the classroom. They have additional questions about what went on in class. They’re curious about something that was raised in class,” he offers.
And for some, that interest is strong enough that it’s extended into extra-curricular academic programs — like Science Olympiad.
“Katy was one of those kids,” Channell recalls.
Fascinated since high school by diseases and how they work, in college Metzler studied cell and molecular biology, graduating from the University of Colorado in 2005. And, in applying for grad schools, Metzler began looking at programs in infectious diseases and immunology.
There was no shortage of schools to which she was accepted. In the states, they included the prestigious universities of Berkeley and Stanford, among others. But after teaching English for a year in China, Metzler was intrigued by the idea of studying in Europe.
She had applied to one German school — the Max Planck Institute — in Berlin. Katy’s father, Helmut, hails from Germany.
“Max Planck is a pretty big name internationally,” Metzler recalls. “They had a program in English. There was also a guy doing research here on something I found really fascinating.”
That man was Dr. Arturo Zychlinsky, who was studying the existence of what are called neutrophil extracellular traps, or NETs.
NETs are a type of immune cell, known to destroy bacteria and microbes, says Metzler.
And in 2004, Zychlinsky’s researchers had found that NETs can also “commit suicide” — releasing their DNA in a sort of suicide bomb, making a stringy, sticky trap for bacteria.
“It’s a field that no one really knew anything about and we could ask a lot of questions that hadn’t been answered yet,” Metzler recounts of her decision to pursue graduate studies at Max Planck.
Today, Metzler is continuing that work as a scientist in the lab, “trying to find out more about the NETs,” she says.
While she’s attempting to answer the world’s toughest questions related to immunology, Metzler credits the hands-on style of learning carried out in Kattnig’s class for first sparking an interest in her field of study.
And Metzler’s German language skills have improved in recent years. She says that’s due in large part to having acquired German roommates.
She encourages others to experience the sort of education abroad that she has.
“I guess a lot of people don’t know how cool it is,” she says. “Maybe they think it’s too hard to do something crazy like go to another country, but it’s really not. You can find programs to do it.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)