Transforming Research into Possibilities


Bret Clawson has a passion for scientific research. This isn’t necessarily surprising, considering that he works in the world-renowned Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics (MGGen) at Northern Arizona University, and that he comes from a family of scientific researchers. What may be surprising, however, is that Clawson is an undergraduate student who has the opportunity to work with Paul Keim, a professor and one of the most renowned genetics researchers in the world. Along with this opportunity, Clawson’s passion has helped him to transform his work at the university into a wealth of future possibilities. 

A passion for science

Clawson, a senior biomedical sciences and chemistry major, originally transferred to the university at the beginning of his sophomore year. Upon arriving, Clawson had the good fortune to land a spot as an undergraduate researcher at MGGen. There, he had the opportunity to work with Keim, a world-renowned professor in biology who played a crucial role in aiding the United States military and intelligence communities with investigation and clean-up efforts following anthrax attacks in 2001. 

For Clawson, the opportunity to work in Keim’s Lab also gave him a chance to begin carving his own niche in the science world, which was something he had dreamed about since his high school days in Phoenix. To date, Clawson has engaged in a variety of projects, including studying and classifying different genetic species of fleas, and studying the effects and movement of plague via local types of prairie dogs. 

“I really do love learning about science, researching science, and just contributing to it in any way I can,” Clawson says. “I think that’s one of the most fulfilling things about the opportunities I’ve had here: that I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to science in a very awesome way.”

From the lab to the classroom

According to Clawson, his classroom professors have been just as influential as his time spent working in the lab. Clawson cites David Pierotti, an anatomy and physiology professor, Edgar Civitello, a professor of chemistry, and Andrew Koppisch, a biochemistry professor, as his favorite faculty members because of their ability to make complicated subjects relatable and fun.

The opportunity to take the lessons learned in the lab and apply them to the classroom has greatly enhanced Clawson’s collegiate experience.

“My curiosity is so piqued from doing lab work and seeing what’s possible,” Clawson says. “I’ve been hearing lectures and thinking about how they can be applied. It definitely helps you to look at the material in a different way and try to apply things you do in the lab at a class level, and vice versa.”

Establishing an excellent foundation 

Clawson is currently in the process of adding another area of research to his repertoire by joining Koppisch on a project that seeks to understand how protein expression can help create future vaccines. 

Through his work, Clawson has been able to present his findings at national conferences, including the National Conference of Undergraduate Research, the AZ Bio Expo, the American Society for Microbiology’s Arizona and Nevada chapter conference, and NAU's Undergraduate Research and Design Symposium. 

With this experience in tow, Clawson believes he has established an excellent foundation toward his goal of attending medical school in either Arizona or Washington D.C. This successful beginning, he says, is possible because of his extracurricular activities as part of the Keim Lab.

“The value of research as an undergraduate should not be understated,” Clawson says. “I believe that my entire perspective of learning has changed, and as I am introduced to a new knowledge set, I am consistently attempting to apply it to my own work. This is a great advantage. Medical schools explicitly state research as one of the best extracurricular activities for prospective applicants to become involved with, and I feel that a research background paints an applicant as a dedicated learner. A background of pursuing knowledge in addition to coursework is definitely advantageous.”