The Student Becomes the Teacher

Christopher Whidbey works with junior Tusani Nhleko (center) and junior Megan Bigalk on research to determine the proteins in different gel samples.

Assistant Chemistry Professor Christopher Whidbey started at Seattle University thinking he would go to medical school. Instead, his experience as an undergraduate led him in a new direction.

When he arrived on the Seattle University campus as a freshman, Christopher Whidbey, ‘10, was certain his next stop would be medical school.

But during his experience as an undergraduate researcher at SU, where he triple majored in chemistry, biology and philosophy, and helped mentor younger students, Whidbey envisioned a different path. 

This one combined his interest in scientific research, along with public health’s mission to prevent illness and disease on a large scale—especially maternal health for people of color—with fostering students’ growth as scientists. 

“It was really fulfilling in a different way than I had expected,” he says of his undergrad research experience at SU, where students were helping investigate the environmental fate of different endocrine-disrupting compounds. The research coincided with public warnings about BPA, a hormone disruptor used in plastic packaging that can make its way into food. 

“This connects really clearly to something that people are concerned about and care about and has big implications for fishing and just general environment stuff, too,” Whidbey says. “So being able to see what I was learning in the classroom be actually, tangibly useful was really powerful.” 

In 2018, after stops for a PhD and postdoctoral work and teaching, Whidbey returned to Seattle University as an assistant professor of chemistry and has been involving students in high-level research, giving them the life-changing experiences he had as an undergraduate. 

In August, the prestigious medical journal Nature Microbiology published a study Whidbey co-senior authored with two Harvard University researchers and which credits two recent Seattle University graduates as co-authors. The results of the study could be leveraged to create treatments for conditions that affect pregnant people and that can lead to preterm birth. 

“This is kind of an affirmation that at SU, we’re able to provide research training and opportunities in really cutting-edge science,” Whidbey says. “Given an opportunity, SU students and faculty can conduct research at an extremely high level and help push science forward. To get to help facilitate that for students is really rewarding.” 

And now a 2023 Cottrell Scholar Award recipient, Whidbey and his students will be using the grant to test a more efficient method of identifying functions of genes, with implications for maternal-child health. The Cottrell award recognizes early career science faculty who excel at both teaching and research. 

“Coming in right as an 18-year-old, there’s so much that you don’t know about the possibilities as far as careers go,” he says. “So that’s one thing that I really try to do for students now and want to do with the Cottrell award is show them these are different opportunities, these are things that you can do that might not be medicine but might fulfill you even more.” 

It’s not uncommon for students entering a STEM field to set their sights on medical school, says Chemistry Professor and Department Chair P.J. Alaimo, PhD, who Whidbey credits with encouraging him to pursue research. 

“I hope I didn’t ruin his life by suggesting he not go to medical school,” Alaimo says. “But he has that questioner’s nature. His wanting to know more, dig deeper, to me, that’s not a physician, but an academic.” 

Near the end of middle school, where his interest in biology and chemistry started, Whidbey moved from the Puget Sound area and accompanied his mother to Ellensburg, where she was continuing her studies and where Whidbey was one of three Black students in his graduating class of about 200 at Ellensburg High School. 

His mother had intended to become a PE teacher but pivoted to public health and through her Whidbey received his first exposure to how he could put his interest in science to work. 

As he was approaching high school graduation in 2007, Whidbey made the trip back over the mountains to visit his cousin, who was attending Seattle University. 

“I came to visit and just really, I don’t know, kind of felt at home,” says Whidbey. “It felt like a really good place to be.” 

He returned to Kittitas County the summer after his freshman year at SU to volunteer with the local health department, calling parents of campers after a pertussis outbreak and documenting water well sites. 

“Seeing the broad impact that public health can have, it feels like you’re a little bit upstream of working directly with patients, but you can influence the whole community’s health and help put them on a better path,” Whidbey says. 

Whidbey’s first foray as an undergraduate researcher came working under Chemistry Professor Douglas Latch, PhD, who like Alaimo, is now one of Whidbey’s colleagues. 

“It was readily apparent to faculty just what a stellar student he was,” Latch says. “Both in terms of his academic accomplishments, but also being able to grapple with tough concepts and work with other students.” 

Latch adds, “I kind of thought he was on the path to faculty somewhere and I’m just delighted it ended up being with us.” 

Following graduation from Seattle University, Whidbey earned his PhD in Pathobiology from the University of Washington, working with researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, where he made a breakthrough discovery while studying bacteria that can be present during pregnancy—neonatal pathogen group B Streptococcus (GBS). 

Usually the bacteria don’t cause problems, but in some pregnancies it can move into the uterus and break down the membranes that protect the fetus, causing preterm birth or leading to an infection in utero. 

“For a long time, since like the 1920s or 30s, people had thought that it was a protein toxin like most other bacteria make,” Whidbey says. “While I was there, I showed that it isn’t a protein, it’s a different class of molecule, a lipid that is responsible for this toxic activity.” 

With gauges in his ears and a tattoo on his forearm, Whidbey cuts a youthful figure though he is now colleagues with those he first knew as his professors. 

The tattoo is an image representing a concept from the medieval Christian philosopher Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy Whidbey read as an undergraduate. 

For Whidbey, the tattoo serves as a testament to a personal commitment to intellectual humility. 

“I don’t ever want to be so convinced that I’m right about things that I can’t change my mind.”

This story originally appeared in the fall edition of Seattle University Magazine, out now. Want more stories like this? Check out the issue in its entirety.

Written by Andrew Binion

Thursday, November 16, 2023