Innovation at Keck: Spotlighting Dr. Sarah Budischak

Juliette Des Rosiers ’26
Copy Editor Intern

This is the first article in a series highlighting the female and genderqueer faculty working at the W.M. Keck Science Center. In highlighting their background and achievements in research, The Scripps Voice aims to elevate female and genderqueer voices in science. We hope that this series will get students, especially other aspiring female and genderqueer scientists, excited about the innovative science happening at Keck and motivate them to consider the opportunities to take part in research at Keck.

Professor Sarah Budischak M.S., Ph.D. is an assistant professor of biology at the W.M. Keck Science Department since 2018. She received a Bachelor of Science degree with a biology major and chemistry minor from Davidson College. There, Dr. Budischak felt a pull to research due to the opportunities provided by going to a liberal arts college.

“I got to do research the summer after my sophomore year, and I just fell in love with it, because it was like all about problem-solving and figuring stuff out and troubleshooting and analyzing data,” Budischak reflected.

As for identifying her concentration, Budischak found inspiration from her classes as an undergraduate. “My favorite class I took was called Ecotoxicology. It was thinking about contaminants in real-world, ecological systems, and how they interact with both biotic, biological, and abiotic medic factors. I just thought it was so cool. So I applied to a bunch of grad programs to do that.”

While working on her master’s degree in the fish, wildlife, and conservation department at Virginia Tech, Budischak studied ecological toxicology by conducting experiments on amphibians sensitive to pesticides. Eventually, she developed her project to include observations on how parasites and pesticides interacted. She then received her Ph.D. in 2014 from the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia. She collaborated closely with Dr. Vanessa Ezenwa of the University of Georgia while studying co-infection in African buffalo, traveling to South Africa for field studies of community ecology.

Most recently, Budischak worked on her postdoctoral research at Princeton University, where she discovered an appreciation for undergraduate instruction and developed her skills in teaching science.

“I also got to mentor undergraduates that whole time and I really loved that,” said Budischak. “Coming from a liberal arts college, it just seemed nice to teach students who are interested in being there in small classrooms. Where you get to know your students and can do research with undergrads, not just have your grad students do research with undergrads. So that was always what I wanted to do. They had postdoc fellowships on how to teach science writing. So each year they’d have postdocs from all over the university come into their science writing program and learn how to teach science and then teach some science writing classes. I brought a lot of those components into my class here.”

Professor Budischak teaches a collection of biology courses at Keck while working on her research in disease ecology which studies the patterns, development, and mechanisms of pathogens and how that impacts individual organisms, isolated populations, and communities.

“It’s so relevant,” she insists. “Seventy-five percent of all the emerging infectious diseases come from non-human animals, so understanding disease in wildlife can really help us for conservation or management decisions and also for human health.”

Her current focus is on co-infections within organisms, specifically, how parasites and diseases interact within an individual. “I’m interested in doing research that helps us understand important questions or at least another little piece of them. One of the things with infectious diseases I’ve been interested in for a while now is how different diseases interact with each other. So if [an organism] has worms, they might be more susceptible to getting a virus or bacteria, or if they have both at the same time, they might spread that bacteria or virus or stay sick longer. This is because they have different immune responses that actually shut each other off. So there’s this cool mechanism where it’s hard to fight both at the same time.”

During her research projects, Dr. Budischak frequently collaborates with other Keck scientists. In 2022, she worked with Dr. Findley Finseth to publish a research paper exploring the association between genomic heterozygosity and parasite abundance. The study looked into the possible connection between the genetics of hosts and infectious disease risk. They used feces samples from wild deer mice since they can host multiple infectious diseases that can infect humans, analyzing the identity of their infections and the diversity in their genome. They used their data to compound trends that associated low genetic diversity within individuals with coinfections.

“We found some really interesting patterns suggesting that individuals that have lower genetic diversity are more likely to be infected or more severely infected,” Budischak said. “We’re thinking about conservation and the fragmentation of the landscape. Animal populations are getting less connected to each other. Just considering what the implications are of that for susceptibility and disease spread.” Since its publication last year, the paper has been selected as a featured paper in the Springer Evolutionary Ecology journal.

Dr. Budischak is also excited to apply genomics to her other working papers. For instance, she works with Dr. Elise Feree, another Keck faculty member, to observe co-infection and parasites in birds at the Keck field station. “Professor Feree is studying their behavior and I’m studying their parasites. Once we have enough data, we’re gonna come together and write a paper on how parasites might affect their migratory behavior or be affected by their migratory behavior.”

Especially after her work with Professor Findseth, Dr. Budischak is looking forward to applying genetic analysis to this study. “I think we can learn a lot from the host genetics and maybe even like parasite genetics to see who’s sharing parasites with whom,” she said. At the field station, we studied two different species of birds. One stays in California year-round and the other migrates to Alaska and back. Are they spreading parasites to each other? Or do they have different kinds of parasites? They look the same under a microscope. So until we do the genetics, we can’t tell.”

When speaking to current students aspiring to a career in science, Professor Budischak emphasized the necessity of taking advantage of the opportunities at the Keck Science Center, starting with the classes.

“One thing I would recommend for students here is if they can get into it take a biostats class early,” Budischak said. “That was actually the thing that triggered me to get into this career. I did well in a bio stats class and that professor asked me if I wanted to do research with her for the summer. I am so glad that at Keck we now have these research internship classes, Natural Science I and Natural Science II, worth a quarter credit or a half credit. They’re a really great way for people to get a start on doing research. I’ve had lots of students in my lab doing these quarter-credit research classes and seeing if they’re interested in it. It’s a great way to get enough experience to then apply for summer research.”

She expresses the merits of searching for research opportunities as a method to explore science as a subject and career. “I also think summer research opportunities are really awesome,” Budischak encourages. “What if you had all day to do research and science? Would you still really like it? Would you like it more because you’re not interrupted by everything that happens during the school year? It’s worth a try to decide [if] that’s not the right topic, or not the right lab, or not the right way of doing science for you.”

Image Source: Scripps College