Faculty Spotlight: Heather Barton

Heather Barton grew up in Meadville, a tiny town in western Pennsylvania. She completed her undergrad work at Grove City College near her hometown. Her family, including her parents and four sisters, lived a quiet country lifestyle. She spent many hours as a child playing outside in the dirt, in streams and in the woods. Nature was a big part of her life from a very young age and her desire to figure out how things work in nature was a driving force behind her interest in biology.

Heather expanded her horizons in her grad school and postdoc years. Every school she looked into was geared toward wildlife ecology and evolutionary biology, her primary interests. She settled on Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS where she worked in the conservation genetics lab of Samantha Wisely studying the micro-evolution of rabies in stripe skunks. Because Kansas State was the main location for rabies diagnostics in the US, there was no shortage of samples for lab-based research, with several states represented over at least a decade.

In the Wisely Lab , Heather isolated and sequenced the rabies virus alongside isolating rabid skunk DNA to look at mitochondrial and nuclear DNA to monitor how rabies changes over time. She studied two strains of rabies, looking at the differences between them. The larger implications of this research have more to do with the spread of the disease. The more we understand how the virus interacts with the host, the more we understand the spread of rabies and have a better chance of containment. This is vital to both wildlife and human public health.

After Heather completed her PhD at KSU, she moved to the University of Georgia in Athens, GA where she did her postdoc in the computational ecology lab of John Drake. In the Drake lab, Heather studied the ecology of avian influenza in water fowl and sea birds, another host-virus pathogen research area. Specifically, her research focused on the potential for avian influenza to evolve to a higher potentially dangerous level that could seriously affect the population.

Over her grad school and postdoc years, Heather realized that she enjoys teaching more than research. She originally planned to set up a research lab, but her increased experience with students led her down a new path. Getting to know undergrads through one on one interaction, having a positive impact on their lives along with providing guidance in their scientific education was the most rewarding for her.

Upon completing her postdoc, Heather moved back near her hometown to teach at Grove City College. It seemed like the perfect fit, getting back to her roots and being close to her family and having a built-in support system. But after leaving home and experiencing life outside of that small familiar area, something was lacking. Western Pennsylvania is one of the grayest areas of the US, seeing even less sun than Seattle. While the people at Grove City College were wonderful, it was not the large culturally diverse community that she experienced and missed after moving away. She realized it was time for a change, and was very excited to be hired by the Wash U Biology Department, citing Wash U’s phenomenal reputation as a research institution and teaching university. She joined in fall 2018 and began teaching Bio 2970 Principles of Biology II right away. Heather will also be teaching lab sections for Bio 2960 Principles of Biology I this spring.

Heather has never lived in a city as large as St. Louis and expected this to be a challenge. She’s pleasantly surprised that St. Louis feels more like a big small town. Alongside practical amenities, diverse restaurants, parks and cultural attractions there are enough residential neighborhood pockets that make up the city, that it doesn’t feel large and overwhelming; the best of both worlds so to speak! In addition to enjoying her new city, she is very happy with the positive supportive environment in the Biology Department at Wash U. Not only are faculty and staff welcoming and collaborative, the students blow her away with their authenticity, diplomacy and ingenuity.

In addition to her work, Heather loves running, yoga and almost anything outdoorsy. When she is at home, she spends time with her two rescue cats, Mika and Josie, that she adopted while living in Georgia. She is also a bookworm, in particular when it comes to works of science fiction and fantasy.