For LGBTQIA+ Microbiologist, Safety Comes First: Spotlight on Mo Kaze

June 14, 2021

Kaze packing up the 'portable' greenhouse gas analyzer for field work.
Kaze packing up the “portable” greenhouse gas analyzer for field work.
Source: Mo Kaze.

Having a brick hurled through a window is the kind of threat to personal safety that LGBTQIA+ people have had to face through much of modern history—but for Dr. Mo Kaze, there’s nothing historical about it. The brick flying through her home in 2019 is just one example of the harassment that Kaze dealt with while living off-campus in Merced, Calif. as an out LGBTQIA+ graduate student. The reality that there are communities where LGBTQIA+ individuals aren’t physically safe is something she wishes institutions like the University of California, Merced (UC Merced) would openly and honestly acknowledge before trying to attract students and faculty with diverse identities.

Kaze proudly calls herself a "multi-time college dropout.” She started out as a self-taught software engineer working at Apple. Inspired by the passion of those around her, she began taking community college classes to find her personal passion (tech wasn’t it). After a life-changing microscopy course, she decided to go back to school full time and enrolled in a bachelor’s program at Mills College, a women’s liberal arts institution in Oakland, Calif., with the vague idea of pursuing a career in medicine. But "I took a microbiology course and a spotlight turned on over my head and the whole path suddenly lit up," Kaze explained. "Microbes control everything?! What?!"

Kaze's Goddess of Microbiology tattoo.
Kaze's Goddess of Microbiology tattoo by artist and tattooist Tanya Wischerath, done in the style of Mucha with important elements: circos plot of syphilis genome, microscope, plates, a rainbow of 100 uL Eppendorf tubes, a DNA helix and a lit up loop.
Source: Mo Kaze.

This newfound passion propelled her forward. Kaze graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2013, but couldn’t find a job in microbiology. After a brief stint back in tech (which came with all of the homophobia and harassment the industry is known for), she enrolled in a master’s program at California State University, East Bay. She describes the environment as amazing and inspirational, with hands-on classes that were practical and lab-focused. She worked with Dr. Carol Lauzon for her dissertation identifying archaea in geothermal acid pools in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

With Lauzon’s encouragement, Kaze decided to keep going and was accepted to a Ph.D. program at UC Merced in 2017. Before even beginning the program, though, another student publicly outed her on Facebook; Kaze had not decided whether to be out in the off-campus Merced community. The information about her personal life brought unwanted attention and Kaze said “I had no idea what to do about it or who I could even talk to on campus.” Thus began her time in Merced dealing with open hostility, harassment and threats to her personal safety. Kaze wants people to remember that coming out is not a one-time process, but something their LGBTQIA+ peers must continuously do while weighing its risks and benefits. And though she felt safer on campus than in the wider community, "people who loudly proclaimed themselves as allies were often the ones who made jokes and comments that were disturbing, to say the least," Kaze said.

Despite this less-than-supportive environment, Kaze made scientific strides as a member of Dr. Mark Sistrom’s lab. Merced, like much of California’s Central Valley, is a patchwork of agricultural land use, with orchards and produce fields directly adjacent to feed lots and slaughterhouses. Microbial pesticides (a subclass of biopesticides that consist of microorganisms with activity against crop pests) have become popular alternatives to chemical pesticides and are touted as safer and more environmentally friendly. Kaze wondered about the ability of common Bacillus-based microbial pesticides to harbor antimicrobial resistance (AMR) elements. After all, Bacillus spp. are known for their genetic plasticity—they easily and prolifically exchange mobile genetic elements, like plasmids. Could these bacterial strains pick up antibiotic resistance elements from pathogenic bacteria, perhaps from the animal lots next door, and aid in their spread?

The title of Kaze’s resulting thesis is sobering: "Biopesticides as Unintentional Reservoirs and Vectors of Antibiotic Resistance Genes and Mobilizable Elements." Essentially, Kaze found both phenotypic and genotypic evidence of resistance to clinically important antibiotics in commercially available Bacillus-based biopesticides (currently available as a preprint that has not been peer reviewed). Together, the 4 biopesticides tested showed phenotypic resistance to 5 classes of clinically important antibiotics: cephalosporins, carbapenems, lincosamides, streptogramins and tetracyclines. And each of the 4 were resistant to at least 2 of these classes. In addition, mixing the biopesticide strains with carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae resulted in non-resistant Bacillus spp. picking up the ability to produce carbapenemase and grow in the presence of carbapenems. Said Kaze of her doctorate, "Ultimately, I think what I accomplished was ‘we need to add this to the agricultural checklist’ " of practices that influence the spread of antimicrobial resistance in the environment.

Although Kaze was very productive as a graduate student (in the middle of a pandemic, no less) she said, "I’d like to say I finished my Ph.D. really fast because I’m a genius, but the reality is I was very motivated to finish so I could get back home [to the Bay Area]." Her experience makes her question the prudence of recruiting LGBTQIA+ people to an institution when the surrounding community is hostile. "There are communities and entire states actively legislating against fundamental rights for trans kids, trans people and gay rights. It isn’t safe mentally and physically for individual queer folks, but also for people who are caregivers to queer, trans and gender non-conforming folks." Is it OK for (overwhelmingly) straight, cisgender hiring committees to offer reassurances that don’t take the situation seriously enough because they haven’t dealt with it firsthand? Kaze called this gap between good intentions and reality a "lack of understanding about [LGBTQIA+] lived experiences." She acknowledges there’s little institutions can do to change their surrounding communities, but hopes they take a hard look at the environment they’re asking potential faculty and students to live in. "There are just so many things that straight folks don’t have to think about," Kaze said. "Could you imagine being faced with that decision? You’re like ‘oh, I’ve got an academic position, I’ve finally won! And…I can’t live in [that] community.’"

Since completing her doctorate in fall 2020, Kaze has returned to the Bay Area as a Department of Energy fellow working with Dr. Susannah Tringe at Joint Genome Institute in Berkeley, Calif. She came up with her fellowship proposal while driving through the Central Valley and wondering about the impact of manmade water-land interfaces (such as the 500 miles of concrete irrigation canals that crisscross the valley) on carbon sequestration and cycling. Not surprisingly, Kaze found a correlation between the level of methane being released into the air at a given canal site and the abundance of methanogenic archaea living in the canal’s sediment. She’s finishing up her analysis now and hopes to publish her findings soon. As with her Ph.D. project, she’s identified a gap in the scientific knowledge that will be important in taking a systems approach to a larger problem—this time, climate change.

Kaze cleaning up after sampling microbial communities in aqueducts in the Central Valley of California.
Kaze cleaning up after sampling microbial communities in aqueducts in the Central Valley of California.
Source: Mo Kaze.

Kaze intends to continue in microbiology, but maybe not in academia. She’s currently working with the Alameda Department of Public Health to analyze their backlog of SARS-CoV-2 variant typing data, as well as data on other pathogens, and likes both flexing her skills, as well as the practical impact of the work.  “Lack of diversity has made a strong case that I don’t have a place in academia,” she said. “And that’s fine, it’s their loss.”

Author: Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.

Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.
Dr. Katherine Lontok is the Director of Science and Policy Communications with the Immune Deficiency Foundation and the former Scientific and Digital Editor for ASM.