Kira Bourret

Driven by passion: A Virginia Tech student strives to achieve future goal of entering medical field 

girl in lab
Kira Bourret in the Dean lab. Photo by Rachel Prill.

On a cool February afternoon, the sunlight streamed through the windows in the Fralin Life Science Institute. I sat at a cozy, circular table with Kira Bourret, a sophomore majoring in biochemistry in the College of Science. At first glance, I thought this would be an ordinary interview. I glanced down at my sheet of questions as she waited attentively. When the first question finally rolled off my tongue, her eyes lit up, and a great story unfolded.

“Ever since I was little, I loved learning how stuff works,” Bourret explained. A wide smile crossed her face as she recalled her childhood science experiments: “My dad and I would always do fun experiments together—from doing the classic exploding Coke by putting Mentos inside, to growing our own rock candy, to even building a car programmed to maneuver around a bucket on its own for a science competition in 8th grade.” That was only the beginning.

In high school, Bourret took many different science-related courses. One of her favorite projects was in a biology class, where she dissected a fetal pig. The thought of slicing open a dead pig and examining its internal organs would make most people want to throw up, but it was the complete opposite for Bourret. She explained enthusiastically, “I thought it was so cool to see everything they talked about [in textbooks]. Like ‘Oh this is the brain!’ I just thought it was cool!”

With a special interest in medical science, she took initiative and applied for an internship at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. She spent two summers shadowing doctors on the cardiology floor. Bourret distinctly remembered doctors telling her how difficult yet rewarding it was to be a doctor. They put it simply, “Don’t do it if you don’t love it—but if you love it, do it.” That sparked a great drive within her to achieve her goal of becoming a doctor.

After graduating high school, Bourret moved all the way from Suffield, Connecticut to Ashburn, Virginia. Going into college at Virginia Tech, she started out as a biology major. However, she quickly changed her mind after taking a chemistry course and realizing that biochemistry was the perfect fit. She immediately made the decision to switch majors.

Wanting to learn more about medical science, the summer following her freshman year, Bourret interned at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. She shadowed a doctor who worked in the ER, a high-pressure environment where doctors must be ready to treat a wide range of issues at a moment’s notice. Most of us would cave under that kind of stress, but Bourret thrived in it.

“I loved the fast pace,” said Bourret. “I’m the kind person that needs to be doing something at all times, so I like that they are on their feet. They get to see a lot of different kinds of things and get to help a lot of different kinds of people.”

She even got to see doctors perform a spinal tap, a procedure where doctors insert a needle into the lower back to remove a sample of spinal fluid. This was an unbelievable experience, yet she was eager to do more.

Kira as a kid.
Kira at five years old in 2002. Courtesy Kira's parents.

This year, when Bourret got an email about undergraduate research, she jumped at the chance and applied for the position. She now works as an undergraduate research assistant for Dennis Dean, University Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and director of the Fralin Life Science Institute, to help create self-nitrogen fixing plants.

Never having done research before, this was a new experience for Bourret.

“It was a learning process,” she recalled. “At first, I didn’t realize how much they would have me be doing, but I came in and they taught me some stuff, and they slowly were like ‘Ok, just do it. Here’s this, and figure it out.’ It is cool to see them teaching me. Now I come in and I just know what I am doing."

Valerie Cash, senior lab specialist at the Fralin Life Science Institute, commented, “I was impressed by Kira’s quick grasp of new techniques as she worked in the lab. She has ‘good hands’ in the lab, which means she can do the experimental work, and we can trust her results to be accurate. On top of that, she was willing to do anything to help out and always with a smile on her face.”

A lot of Bourret’s current research is about "seeing what works and what doesn't work and going through a process to figure out a solution. It also involves learning and understanding how and why something works the way it does, and not just what it does.”

These skills are helping to prepare her for the medical field, where doctors need to be able to figure out how and why things work the way they do. As a doctor, she will need to know how the body works and how small changes can have different physiological effects on a person.

Bourret’s story is not even close to being over. Although she has a few more years until graduation, she has big plans for her future. Kira wants to go to medical school and pursue a career in anesthesiology or emergency medicine. With her passion for learning and medical science, the sky is the limit!

Article written by Rachel Prill while taking ENGL 4842: Science Writing in Spring 2017 as part of a collaboration between Fralin and the Department of English at Virginia Tech.