Up through her senior year of college, Professor Anne Kwitek planned to become a veterinarian.

Then, at a trip to her boyfriend’s farmhouse on Christmas morning, a veterinarian was there, arm deep in a cow helping it calf. Kwitek decided she was not so interested in becoming a veterinarian after all.

After graduation, since she was not continuing on to veterinarian school, Kwitek had to find something else to do. A Wisconsin native, she found a job at a lab in the small town of Marshfield, Wisconsin, working for Jim Weber, a research scientist who was developing some of the first genetic markers used in the Human Genome Project.

Kwitek discovered that she enjoyed working in the lab, liked research, and was very interested in genetics.

Now Kwitek is an associate professor of pharmacology and internal medicine, as well as the associate director of the Iowa Institute of Human Genetics. Her work focuses on finding the genes that contribute to diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, with the hope that finding the genes will allow researchers to come up with a treatment.

“People don’t seem to accept the fact that obesity is genetic,” said Kwitek. “There’s this stigma that comes along with it. Even scientists, people I would think would understand, don’t seem to realize how your environment can interact with your genetics.”

Treating these types of diseases is a complex problem because of the number of genes that contribute to them. Whereas a disease like cystic fibrosis is caused by just one gene, these are caused by multiple genes which are also influenced by a person’s environment.

However, Kwitek loves the challenge the genetic field provides.

“Everything’s new,” said Kwitek. “There’s so much to learn. That’s what excites me.”

Kwitek studies genetics by working with lab rats who have been bred to have either high or low blood pressure. Since animal genes are around 95 percent the same as human genes, and rats can quickly breed into a large population, they are an ideal test subject.

In rats with one of these diseases, their genetic markers will have a variant that allows the researchers to guess which genes are contributing to the disease.

Kwitek said the field of genetic research is exploding. In a few years, she expects everyone to have their genetic sequence.

“The ability to sequence people is one of the biggest things that is going to come out of the human genome project,” Kwitek said. “What we do with that is another thing. We have to understand a lot about the DNA, and then we can start understanding patients on an individual level.”

Kwitek’s advice to young researchers is... “You have to have passion for this career. You have to love what you do. Every day, there’s got to be something you love.”

If she were not a researcher, Kwitek would be… a veterinarian. Kwitek describes herself as a “complete animal nut.” She has a dog at home that she loves, and she sometimes wishes she could go back and become a veterinarian after all.

When Kwitek is not working, she can usually be found… knitting, playing with her dogs, and getting ready to move in to her new house.

By Anne Easker