Faculty Spotlight: Heather Barkholtz

New MET faculty affiliate Dr. Heather Barkholtz spoke with program manager Ezra Mauk about her educational/career background as well as her research goals and advice to graduate students. Dr. Barkholtz joined MET in May 2023.

Describe your educational background and training.
My path to forensic toxicology is a little non-linear. I got my bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and then I went on to get my PhD at Northern Illinois University (NIU). While at NIU, I focused on nanotechnology and material science. I developed catalysts for energy storage and conversion applications, primarily hydrogen fuel cells. Once I completed my PhD, I wanted to keep doing research that straddled fundamental and applied science. I then went to Sandia National Lab, where I was a postdoc for just under two years. There, I studied the safety and reliability of lithium-ion batteries for grid-level energy storage installations. While at Sandia, I really liked how applied the work was, but I was looking for a bit of a change. Primarily, I was hoping to move back to Wisconsin, which is where I am from. I knew I wanted to work on real-world problems with direct impact, which is how I came across forensic toxicology.

What are your research goals?
I focus broadly on the action and detection of drugs of abuse in humans. Put another way, we’re looking at detecting drugs in human specimens or understanding how they impact human performance, specifically driving impairment. But, we also like to make sure that the tools and resources we develop are translatable and accessible to others. For example, one of our projects aims to analyze mass spectrometry data through an online toolkit. Our goal is to develop workflows through transparent mechanisms to expedite adoption by practitioners and have an impact on the field.

Why did you become affiliated with the MET program?
It was the students that drew me. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with some graduate students from the MET program and I’ve been really impressed. They have diverse backgrounds and skill sets, which draws me, maybe because of my own nonlinear pathway. I value people that have different perspectives than I have because it enriches the work that we do. I think MET cultivates skill set diversification in its student cohorts.

Describe your mentoring style.
I always struggle with this one because I try to be student-centered, which means that my mentoring style has to be diverse. I’m always learning and trying to find ways to meet the needs of my students. I also try to be focused on my student’s personal and professional goals so I can tailor experiences and opportunities to their needs. The foundation is that I’m accessible and I cultivate a safe space in which to grow.

In your experience, which characteristics make graduate students successful?
Tenacity. I joke that you get a PhD because you’re just very stubborn. More seriously, I think that PhDs are successful in that they’re willing to face adversity in their projects. They’re always going to have experiments failing, they’re always going to be challenges. We’re working on the edge of knowledge, there isn’t necessarily an answer to the question you’re asking. Scientists have to be confident in themselves, and willing to try different approaches until progress is made.

Any other advice you’d give to graduate students?
I encourage graduate students to pursue and advocate for what they want to do. I think students get a lot of advice that is well-intended but does not necessarily reflect current market conditions or the student’s professional goals. So, I try to empower students to be vocal about what they really want or, perhaps more importantly, what they do not want. There are a lot of different career options and students need to be aware of them and then feel supported in pursuing what works for them.