THROUGHOUT THE WEEK, YOU CAN FIND CATHERINE PUTONTI, PHD working with undergraduate and graduate students in both biology and computer science labs. Putonti, the Bioinformatics Program director, has taught biology and computer science classes throughout her 11 years at Loyola. She is currently mentoring 12 students, and has earned numerous awards throughout her tenure, most recently receiving the 2018 Computing Research Association’s Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentoring Award.
Putonti worked with Alan Wolfe, professor of microbiology, and a team of undergraduate students to recently author a report in the Journal of Bacteriology that shares how phages—viruses that infect bacteria—are abundant in the bacteria that inhabit the female bladder. The study could potentially show how bacteriophages can be used as alternatives to antibiotics. We asked Putonti to share some insight into her career path and why it’s important to encourage more women to enter the STEM fields.
Who or what inspired you to get involved in bioinformatics?
It was all accidental. I started as a biology major as an undergraduate because I was interested in biological research, but everyone else wanted to be a doctor. I knew I didn't want to be a doctor so I very quickly changed majors. I graduated with a major in computer science and then got a job in that field. I didn’t love my job so I decided to go back to school. I took a class in bioinformatics in the master's program I was in and realized this was how biology and computer science actually worked together. So I decided to stay in school and pursue my PhD in bioinformatics. I really liked it because I was able to pose my own questions and answer them as well.
How has Loyola influenced or supported you throughout your career?
Loyola has supported me a lot over the years. When I started here, the bioinformatics program had just started, and my job really was to come here and teach towards that program. I was one of the first faculty members that had this joint appointment where I was split between two departments. It was very much a new experience but the faculty were supportive and ensured I wasn’t overstretched between both departments. We just launched a bioinformatics graduate program in fall 2017, and Loyola has been encouraging throughout this process.
There are a lot of underrepresented groups that haven't been traditionally studied, and I think we're seeing more diversity in what we're studying because there's greater diversity in the field.
— Catherine Putonti, PhD
How do you think you’ve made a difference as a woman in your field?
I was the first woman to graduate from the computer science department in my undergrad and I was the only one that was in the field in graduate school. I'm all about free communication of ideas and I'm sure that I've been unfairly marginalized because of my gender—I would be naive to think otherwise—but it doesn't matter because I'm just going to keep working.
I hope that I'm a good role model for women in computer science. I always try to emphasize that my students should have hobbies and make sure they have lives outside of school. I also want them to realize they’re going to mess things up and that's great, that's why they’re in college—it’s a learning experience and they have to learn from everything.
Why is it important to encourage more women to enter the STEM fields?
There needs to be a good diversity of ideas in technology, math, and engineering. Those fields are all changing so rapidly. If you consider how much technology has progressed in the past decade versus a few decades before, different perspectives can really open up new avenues of thought.
In regards to biomedical science, it's been really interesting because it's only been a decade or two since they realized it was important to test drugs on women when those drugs are for women. I think women in bioinformatics and biomedical sciences have been driving more attention to analyzing and studying women’s issues. There are a lot of underrepresented groups that haven't been traditionally studied, and I think we're seeing more diversity in what we're studying because there's greater diversity in the field.
What do you envision for the future of women in STEM at Loyola and beyond?
The bioinformatics program at Loyola has always been a very 50/50 gender balanced program. There are more females than males here at Loyola, and the STEM departments are very strong. It’s great to see diversity within the faculty. I know that is something that we continue to strive for, but having women in STEM fields as professors, researchers, and mentors to create an atmosphere where women don't realize they’re a minority is important. If we do that, then hopefully they won’t see a hurdle and maybe waste some time or energy on overcoming that hurdle but they can just do what they want to do.
A diverse student and faculty body is very helpful for those of us who are training that next generation of colleagues. It’s an interesting time to try to figure out what is going on with women in all industries, but it's important that we have equality and diversity.