True Blue

Going Forth: Parasite Hunter

An alumna is improving outcomes for the unborn.

Toxoplasma gondii oocyst under the microscope, isolated.
Toxoplasma gondii—a deadly, if relatively unknown, parasite—has the full attention of medical researcher Kjerstie Olson. Photo by Todorean Gabriel/Getty.

Kjerstie N. Olson (BS ’17) gently eases her microscope into focus as she inspects a blood sample for Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite fatal to unborn fetuses and transplant patients. Since graduating from BYU with a degree in medical laboratory sciences, Olson has sharpened her skill at spotting unwelcome micro-organisms. Working at the Dr. Jack S. Remington Laboratory for Specialty Diagnostics in Palo Alto, California, the No. 1 lab for toxoplasmosis research in the country, Olson is saving lives behind the scenes.

After learning about hookworms, ticks, pinworms, and other unfriendly creatures in an undergrad parasitology course from BYU microbiology and molecular biology professor Eric Wilson, Olson knew she had found her calling. “I think scientists study science because it’s a cool mix of the weird and the gross—and parasites are just that,” Olson says. “It’s so fascinating to me to learn about all these different bugs in different environments—from your food to your water to your soil. They’re everywhere.”

Photo of a blonde woman smiling.
Photo courtesy of Kjerstie Olson

“My lab can help prevent tragedy.”

—Kjerstie Olson

Olson’s lab helps physicians catch and treat parasites before patients experience their damaging effects. Because toxoplasmosis symptoms are not immediate, many who host the parasite are unaware it’s even there. As opposed to countries where pregnant women are tested every month for toxoplasmosis, the United States does not require testing for the parasite even though it’s common and its effects are preventable.

“It can be overwhelming sometimes because we deal with things that ultimately mean life or death,” she says. “My lab can help prevent tragedy.”

Olson was recently recognized as one of the American Society for Clinical Pathology’s 40 Under Forty honorees for her contribution to laboratory medicine and clinical research. “I still geek out in the lab every day,” says Olson. “I love the altruistic, saving-lives-behind-the-scenes side of the healthcare industry. . . . It’s been such a cool career journey so far. I’m excited to see where it goes.”


SERVICE STORIES

In Going Forth Y Magazine shares stories of alumni making the world a better place by serving in their communities, congregations, and homes. Let us know when you see an alum going about doing good. Send your nominations (and any photos) to alumninews@byu.edu.

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