From Undecided to Genetics Researcher
Love for Learning Began at UW-Fond du Lac
The right school and the right teachers can change the future. Kyle Kaniecki learned that when he chose to attend UW-Fond du Lac, a first step that set him on a much longer, focused course through higher education.
Kaniecki points to UW-Fond du Lac as his local launching point, where a once disinterested student found the learning spark and followed it to additional degrees from nationally acclaimed universities en route to a career in genetics that could hold far-reaching implications for humankind.
“I was a mediocre student, at best,” he said of his high school performance. Among the first Fond du Lac High School graduates in 2002, Kaniecki immediately joined the workforce, where he soon realized the work he was doing offered little opportunity for intellectual stimulation or promotion. By January of 2003, he enrolled at UW-Fond du Lac.
“I knew I wanted more, but with a borderline C average in high school, it was unlikely that I would have been accepted to many colleges,” he acknowledged. “UW-Fond du Lac gave me my first opportunity to learn in an environment with friendly, knowledgeable professors and respectful peers. I didn’t know it until then, but it turned out that I loved science and was pretty good at it, too.”
Mentoring Makes a Difference
The mentoring of then-instructor Jennifer Radtke was especially inspiring. “She and the other faculty members I encountered there gave me a passion for learning that has only grown exponentially since,” Kaniecki said, adding that he continues to use a note-taking style learned in Radtke’s classes.
“It’s nice to know that I played a role in encouraging him,” said Jennifer Radtke Sloan, former UW-Fond du Lac biology instructor. “Kyle stood out as being inquisitive and strong academically, as well as being both studious and a pleasure to have in the classroom.”
From UW-Fond du Lac, Kaniecki headed to UWMadison to complete his undergraduate studies through the Guaranteed Transfer Program. Initially, he enrolled in the School of Education, with a goal of becoming a science teacher for deaf high-schoolers. He discovered that science held more allure for him than teaching, and transferred to the College of Letters and Sciences where he completed a degree in zoology in 2008.
“I found exactly what I love,” he said, of his undergraduate work with Dr. Yevjenya Grinblat investigating the molecular pattern of a genetic disorder called holoprosencephaly. “I am more at home in a lab than anywhere else in the world.”
With his undergraduate degree completed, Kaniecki accepted a research and development position with Promega, a Madison biopharmaceutical company. “I worked with a team of brilliant scientists, developing the current goldstandard for forensic genetic identity that is used in FBI, CIA and INTERPOL crime labs around the world,” Kaniecki said. “However, the appetite for learning that I first found at UW-Fond du Lac was still unsatisfied.”
Return to Academia
When the 12-month Promega contract ended, Kaniecki felt drawn to work in academia, and landed a position at the Johns Hopkins University Institute of Genetic Medicine. Working as a senior research specialist, he maintained the lab, ordered supplies and performed administrative tasks, while also completing DNA extraction from blood samples and other genetic tests.
With the encouragement of a Johns Hopkins mentor, Kaniecki enrolled in a master’s program at the university and earned an M.S. degree in biotechnology, drug discovery and molecular targets with highest honors in May 2012. The cystic fibrosis research completed with his mentor is expected to be published in a well-regarded scholarly journal in the near future.
“This lab and Promega encouraged me to look at genetics more,” he said. “I already had an interest in neuroscience. Now, I’m trying to fuse them.”
Neuro-genetics in NYC
That academic fusion is happening at Columbia University in New York City, renowned for its programs in genetics and neuroscience. Kaniecki accepted a full scholarship plus stipend and began a Ph.D. program in genetics and development in fall 2012. The average time for completion of this type of program nears seven years.
With an understanding of the commitment required for the longest leg of his academic odyssey, Kaniecki spent the summer of 2012 backpacking through Europe. Adventures included London, Budapest, Prague, Salzburg, Berlin, Paris and Edinburgh, among others.
“I planned a few weeks and left the rest of it open,” Kaniecki said. “I made friends and traveled where the winds blew me. I stayed on couches, in hostels and at a five-star hotel. I met local people and went to places I never would find on my own. It was a great time to take a break and put everything in perspective.
“Ten years ago, I never in a million years would have guessed I’d be doing this. Doors opened,” Kaniecki said of his academic pursuits. “My career in science has been fast paced and exceptionally rewarding. I shudder to think that it might not have happened if it weren’t for those first infantile steps I made at UW-Fond du Lac. The university gave me a chance when no one else would, and for that, I am eternally grateful.”