Secret Worlds: Alumna Kristien Mortelmans' Journey as a Microbiologist
Foothill and De Anza alumna Dr. Kristien Mortelmans never imagined that she’d go to college, much less graduate with a PhD from Stanford University. Growing up in Oostende, a seaside town in Belgium, she was raised with the expectation that girls didn’t need to attend college, since this wasn’t a requirement for being a good housewife, secretary or shopkeeper.
But when she met her future husband, Joost, that perspective began to change. The year was 1965 when her fiancée returned from serving 3 years in the Congo and was applying to universities – in several countries outside of Belgium. “The United States is unique in the world,” Kristien commented in a recent interview, “because it offers everyone the opportunity to access higher education. In Belgium, if you do not complete high school, your chances are very limited to go to college unless you pass a rigorous exam, and so your career options are very limited.”
To the young couple’s surprise, Joost was accepted to Stanford in the Master’s degree program to study Electrical Engineering, based on his compelling application letter, some vocational training in EE and his entrepreneurial experience in the Congo. The couple moved to Palo Alto in the fall of 1965, and was married at Stanford Memorial Chapel just two days before Christmas that same year. The Wells Family, who had hosted Joost as part of the Stanford homestay program for foreign students, were their witnesses at the ceremony, and have remained their friends to this day. As soon as the newlyweds had settled into their small apartment on the Stanford campus, Joost nudged Kristien to start taking some evening classes at Palo Alto High School that would build skills for her position as clerk typist at Kaiser Electronics and Aerospace.
Once she had completed a shorthand class and received an “A”, Joost suggested that she check out the larger number of offerings at nearby Foothill College, so she took evening courses in French, English, Algebra and Geometry. Kristien recalls: “Joost was such a great mentor. He just kept encouraging me to continue in my studies. On the other hand, with the intensity of all his homework from Stanford, maybe he just wanted me out of the way so he could study! In any case, I kept getting “A”s in all my subjects, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed being a student.”
When Joost finished at Stanford, he started working at IBM and the couple moved to Sunnyvale. Now it was Kristien’s turn to become a full time student and focus on her Liberal Arts degree. But since they had moved out of the Foothill service area, she attended classes at the brand new De Anza College. “I was the only woman in my calculus class, and honestly didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do once my education was completed. But I just kept moving forward, fulfilling all of the required classes so I could transfer to either San Jose State or Stanford. Kristien was accepted at both places and opted to go Stanford as a junior transfer student when at that time a woman had to have a 3.7 GPA to get in while men needed a 3.4 GPA. Kristien realized that she had enough prerequisites from De Anza to finish a B.S. in Biology in just two years. Then she had a disappointing experience in her first Biology class. “It was my first poor grade, and really felt like a set back to me. But I read through the list of courses and thought, ‘well, microbiology sounds interesting,’ so I gave it a chance,” she recalls. “What a breakthrough! I was struck the first time I looked into the microscope and saw all these microscopic organisms that surround us, invisibly, every day. Then I streaked an agar plate with a bacterial culture and came back the next day and there they all were – like another world! It felt like magic.”
Kristien had found the path she wanted to follow and earned her degree in Medical Microbiology at Stanford. Now she wanted to move on to graduate studies and once again, Joost stepped in with a mentor’s advice: visit the Chairs of each area she was considering and get a feel for the Department. She took his advice, and it proved very useful. One chair told her that her chance of getting into his program was “nil” because it would demand long hours and hard work. “So then who would make dinner for your husband or look after your household?” he asked. She didn’t let this “advice” stop her. She did find the right match by being accepted into the PhD program in the Medical Microbiology Program where she had earned her Bachelor’s degree , and discovered the world of Salmonella research working with her mentor Dr. Bruce Stocker. Her PhD work was funded through a NIH training grant from the Medical Microbiology Program.
It was in the course of earning her PhD that Kristien ran experiments studying Salmonella plasmids, known to confer resistance to antibiotics, that were also able to enhance mutagenesis when Salmonella bacteria were exposed to chemical and physical agents that induce mutations by damaging DNA. When she split one of the plasmids into smaller components, one of the derivatives responded superior to chemical induced mutagenesis. This was discovered in the laboratory of Dr. Bruce Ames at the University of California, Berkeley, who had received several of the plasmid derivatives from Kristien. These plasmids were introduced in a set of Salmonella bacteria that the Ames laboratory was developing to detect different classes of DNA damaging chemicals. One plasmid derivative in particular was superior, and was named “pKM101” after Kristien (with her initials, “KM”) and became a key component in the bacterial assay used to test compounds to see if they are mutagenic; if so, they have the potential to also be carcinogenic. The Ames Salmonella mutagenicity has been used since 1975 on a worldwide basis and is required by government regulatory agencies as a requirement for approving new chemicals.
During her postdoctoral studies at Stanford School of Medicine, Kristien turned her attention to skin cancer and ultraviolet light research. “I just loved being in the lab,” she recalls, “where every day could bring some new discovery. But at last it was time to get a job, but I wondered if I could find something to enable me to do what I loved?”
As luck would have it, Kristien realized that the Ames Salmonella mutagenicity assay was being used by many companies in the Bay Area. So Kristien called Dr. Ames and asked his advice about where she should apply for a job. “Well,” she recalled him saying, “Stanford Research Institute (SRI) is right there in Menlo Park, and is using the Ames assay assay extensively. That seems like a great opportunity to build on your existing research.” Sure enough, Kristien was hired at SRI in 1976. In 1977 there was a name change from Stanford Research Institute to SRI International where Kristien has worked for the past 35 years. She initially became Principal Investigator on government and commercial contracts that involved screening many thousands of chemicals for mutagenicity in the Ames assay. Over the years she expanded her research by working on a wide range of projects with individuals from different SRI Divisions and serving as Director of the Microbiology Program. “But I always enjoyed the research the most.” She recalls, “After 9/11, we were given a large contract for biodefense projects, and more recently, received funding from NIH to screen compounds for the treatment of tuberculosis.” She adds, “As a researcher, it is important to remain highly flexible, and friendly to everyone, so that you can work well on a variety of projects and as a member of any number of research teams.” As a member of the Society for Industrial Microbiology (SIM), Kristien was elected as a member of the board of directors and as president during a period between 1995 and 2000. She was also the Editor-in-Chief of SIM News, the official news magazine of SIM between 1990 and 2000, and won a fellowship award at SRI International in 2000 in recognition of outstanding scientific and technical accomplishments. Her important research is widely referenced in publications across the globe.
Joost had a successful career at IBM and was even sponsored by the company to pursue a PhD at Stanford in EE. In the early days, his work involved research in the field of magnetic recording; transitioning to statistical modeling by the time he retired 35 years later. Looking back, Kristien muses, “When I was younger, I could never imagine that Joost and I would truly live the American Dream, and such a big part of that is the access that we had to higher education. That is why we give back whenever we can.” Kristien has volunteered for The Health Library at Stanford for the past 15 years, and she and Joost continue to support Foothill & De Anza as well, most recently at the “Taste of History” at De Anza’s California History Center.
Kristien hopes that hearing her story will inspire other students to pursue their dreams no matter how distant they may seem and to support those institutions who provided an educational foundation along they way
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