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PhD candidate Ellen Kiser successfully defends thesis

Ellen Kiser image, she passes PhD defense

PhD candidate Ellen Kiser passes her thesis entitled, “A “Meta” Analysis: The Proper Usage of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics in Infectious Disease Research” on July 8, 2021. Her mentor is Mary Wilson, MD. Following graduation, she will be working at Epic, a healthcare software company.  


Born in Illinois but raised in Wisconsin, Ellen is Midwestern through and through. The only child of Rusty and Angie Kiser, Ellen grew up outside the rural town of Juda, WI. She spent much of her time outdoors exploring the wooded area, dairy cow pastures, corn and soybean fields, and a small creek around her family’s house. And she poured over nature books and field guides, fascinated by all the creatures and plants.

In high school, Ellen gravitated toward math and science. She took every science course offered by her high school’s only science teacher, Ms. Sam. But she enjoyed all subjects, particularly writing. Ellen went on to study biology at the University of North Dakota with plans to attend medical school. After taking an immunology course, Ellen realized her passion for the basic sciences and decided to pursue research rather than medical school. Within a week, she joined the laboratory of Dr. Catherine Brissette to study the host-pathogen interactions of Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease. There she developed a surprising and strange love for ticks!

While applying to graduate programs, Dr. Brissette urged Ellen to apply to the University of Iowa. Ellen was accepted to the Graduate Program in Microbiology and started her studies in the fall of 2017. The next spring, she joined Dr. Mary Wilson’s laboratory. Under the guidance of Dr. Wilson, Ellen realized her interest in computer-based methods. And she examined the interactions between Leishmania spp. parasites, their vector, and the host immune response using newly learned statistical and computer techniques. At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Ellen made more work for herself and analyzed the government policies related to COVID-19.

While at the University of Iowa, Ellen was an active member of student government. During three years of her time at the university, she was a representative at Graduate Student Senate and served as Vice President of Graduate and Professional Student government. In these roles, she wrote legislation and advocated for students’ needs. Ellen conceived and co-wrote the Food at Meetings Resolution, keystone legislation urging graduate programs to recognize and adopt policies regarding the negative pressures felt by students to provide food at meetings.

Outside of the university, Ellen can’t sit still! She enjoys kayaking, mountain biking, and trail running. Before the pandemic onset, Ellen participated in a functional fitness competition, a 10 mile mountain bike race, and an off-road, adventure triathlon. When the Midwestern weather doesn’t allow for outdoor activities, Ellen enjoys knitting, crocheting, tabletop gaming, and of course Netflix. Her favorite TV show is The Walking Dead, and she will talk about it for hours!


Leishmaniasis is a spectrum of neglected tropical diseases which includes visceral leishmaniasis. Visceral leishmaniasis is often fatal if left untreated. In many areas where leishmaniasis is endemic, the prevalence of food insecurity and obesity are increasing and are likely associated with dietary changes such as high lipid intake. So, we theorize that some individuals exposed to leishmaniasis have likely had increased lipid intake.

Previous studies revealed that high lipid intake reduced parasite burden in L. donovani-infected mice, but the impacts of dietary lipids on Leishmania-associated pathogenesis had not been described in detail. To begin to address this knowledge gap, we evaluated parasite growth, tissue pathology, and transcriptomes in L. infantum-infected mice fed a control, high fat, high cholesterol, or high fat-high cholesterol diet. In uninfected mice fed the high fat-high cholesterol diet, histologic sections of livers revealed an intense inflammatory cell infiltrate predominantly composed of neutrophils. Using qPCR, we observed significantly reduced liver parasite burdens in these mice. After 8 weeks of infection, microarrays revealed the high fat-high cholesterol diet significantly increased expression of transcripts belonging to immune-related pathways in both uninfected and Li-infected mice. From these data we predict that increased fat and cholesterol intake prior to infection leads to a hepatic inflammatory microenvironment and thus reduces parasite burden in the liver.

This project exposes the need for experimental and computational planning. We acknowledge flaws in the experimental design of our project and address choices we made in our computational analysis. Finally, we acknowledge the limitations of transcriptome studies. This microarray analysis of the effect of dietary lipids on a murine model of chronic leishmaniasis is hypothesis-finding rather than hypothesis testing. And the limitation lies in the fact that detailed mechanistic conclusions cannot be drawn, but instead, further studies may be guided by our results. Acknowledging and understanding these limitations and flaws allowed for more clear interpretations to be formed.

Monday, July 12, 2021