Feature Stories 2024: Katrina Velle '12: Paying it back

Biology alum '12 and now assistant professor Katrina Velle
Feature Stories 2024: Katrina Velle '12: Paying it back
Katrina Velle '12: Paying it back

Biology alumna hired as assistant professor, returns to UMassD with multiple six-figure research grants

Katrina Velle '12 transferred to UMass Dartmouth as an arts major 15 years ago. This semester, she returned as an assistant professor of biology with two six-figure research grants she's using to understand the biology of brain-eating amoebae, with hopes of uncovering new treatments. She's also looking forward to mentoring students interested in cell biology, as well as students who haven't yet found their calling.

Returning to UMassD

After earning her PhD at the University of Connecticut and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Velle began looking for opportunities to teach and run a research lab. Offering a world-renowned biology department at a campus she knew well, and providing the opportunity to mentor undergraduates in research, UMass Dartmouth was a perfect fit.

"Starting a new job can be big and scary," says Velle. "But doing so at a place you're familiar with, with people who have supported you in the past makes everything feel more comfortable and exciting."

This wasn't the career path Velle imagined when entering UMassD. As an arts student taking a physics class as an elective, she was surprised at her greater interest in science. Thanks in part to her professor's encouragement to major in STEM, she found the biology program, and a passion for research.

"I'm really grateful to all the professors I had on this campus as an undergrad who helped me figure out where I wanted to go in life," says Velle. "I felt lost at various times in my undergraduate years. I transferred colleges. I switched majors twice. I didn't decide on graduate school until the fall semester of my senior year.

"At every step of the way I had professors looking out for me, supporting me, rushing to write me letters of recommendation, and helping me put together my application materials for graduate school. I'm looking forward to mentoring students who might feel as lost as I did and paying that back to the next generation of undergraduates at UMassD."

One month onto the job, Velle is enjoying reconnecting with many of her former professors she now calls colleagues. Biology Department Chair Mark Silby taught Velle's microbiology courses and wrote letters of recommendation for Velle's graduate school applications.

"I worked in Kathy Kavanagh's lab as an undergrad under Ben Winslow, who was a postdoc at the time. Erin Bromage was my immunology professor and Rob Drew was my genetics professor," says Velle. "Now I sit across from them at department meetings. I think that speaks volumes about UMass Dartmouth's ability to retain such great faculty members.

"Now that I'm in their shoes, I'm really excited to support undergrads the way they supported me. As I was deciding where I wanted to go, one of my priorities was to work with undergraduate students. UMass Dartmouth puts a strong emphasis on undergraduate research, which I have personal experience with."


Velle earned a K99 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which became a R00 upon being hired as an assistant professor, worth $746,999 over three years. The project, "Defining Cytoskeletal Mechanisms Driving Cell Motility in Naegleria," aims to understand how Naegleria amoebae crawl in various environments that reflect what they experience in nature or disease.

Naegleria fowleri is a brain-eating amoeba that thrives in warm freshwater, such as lakes in warm weather states. As climates have changed this century, the amoeba's range has expanded north and presents a growing danger.

Infections occur when water containing the amoeba enters the nasal passages, often during summer recreation. Infections are preventable with nose plugs or by avoiding freshwater sources on hot days. Unfortunately, there are no reliable treatments for Naegleria fowleri, leading to a 95% fatality rate. Roughly 70% of those affected are children under the age of 15.

Naegleria flagellate and amoeba
Naegleria flagellate and amoeba.

"We understand very little about how any Naegleria species, including the unharmful ones, move, divide, eat, and more," says Velle. "I'm hoping that by solving some of these basic biology questions, we can find weaknesses in the amoeba that we can target with new drugs. So far, I've found that cells move more quickly and don't turn around when they are in the types of confined spaces they encounter during infection. These qualities are concerning from a pathogenic perspective, and may explain how they spread infection within a brain so efficiently."

Simultaneously, Velle was awarded $105,270 from Amazing Aven's Quest for Amoeba Awareness, a nonprofit organization founded by a family who lost their 6-year-old son, Aven, to a brain-eating amoeba infection.

The organization, which strives to raise awareness for this 100% preventable infection, turned to Velle to use funds they've raised for a spinoff of her R00 grant's research on Naegleria fowleri.

"I feel incredibly fortunate to be awarded this funding," says Velle. "It means a lot to me to have the support of a family impacted by Naegleria fowleri, and I have a responsibility to do everything I can to better understand this pathogen so we can find new ways to treat infections. The funding from both Amazing Aven's Quest for Amoeba Awareness and the NIH puts me in a perfect position to establish my lab and carry out the experiments I designed to characterize Naegleria's cell biology."

Opportunities for students

Velle already has an undergraduate student working in her lab, and a postdoctoral fellow committed to joining her in April. Now she's actively recruiting undergraduate students for this semester, and graduate students to join her in the fall.

Students interested in joining Velle's research projects should email her at kvelle@umassd.edu.