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Arnold School of Public Health

ENHS doctoral candidate impacts public health by combining his interests in natural toxins and food safety

July 1, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, 

With a bachelor’s degree in biology and plenty of lab experience, Gabe Kenne had to get creative to find a way to marry his scientific interests with his passion for public health. His niche, it turns out, is applying his expertise on naturally occurring environmental toxins to ensuring the food we all eat is safe to consume.

After graduating with a B.S. degree and two years of research experience in molecular genetics from the University of Nebraska in his hometown of Omaha, Kenne spent three years working for Transgenomic. At this laboratory, he performed genetic diagnostic tests that confirmed diseases for hospitals throughout the world, and he helped develop new gene tests for other human diseases. In 2011, he enrolled at Kansas State University to pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Infectious Diseases and Zoonosis.

While working toward his MPH, Kenne worked in the diagnostic lab of the university’s veterinary school, examining natural toxins from Harmful Algal Blooms that were responsible for livestock and companion animal deaths. He transformed this research into his master’s thesis, shifting his interests from infectious diseases to the impact of environmental influences, particularly natural toxins, on public health.

Kenne then joined the Arnold School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences (ENHS) because he was impressed with the wide range of faculty and student expertise. “I felt that the diversity in expertise would create a beneficial interdisciplinary foundation for me to earn a PhD,” he says. Kenne connected with mentor and ENHS Assistant Professor Anindya Chanda, who shared his Laboratory of Fungal Pathogenesis and Secondary Metabolism with the aspiring scholar. “Dr. Chanda has given me the freedom to pursue the research that interests me and continues to support and guide me however he can,” Kenne says. “I am grateful for this because it is allowing me to develop my own expertise and maintain my focus on public health.”

The respect is mutual. “One important trait that will help Gabe in the long run is his ability to identify important research questions and design experiments with all the right controls to pursue a question,” Chanda says. “Outside of my lab, he has made an enormous contribution to the ENHS student body by representing the students on the Dean's Advisory Council, and I am very positive that he will make us all very proud after he graduates from the Arnold School.”

In alignment with his environmental health interests, Kenne is also building his research experience around global food safety and security. Since his days at Kansas State, he has remained involved in Frontier, an organization that works with the National Center for Food Protection and Defense and has provided Kenne with substantial first-hand experience related to the complex networks involved in keeping our food safe as well as the global processes that transfer food from the farm to our plates. “My current research is on aflatoxin, a mycotoxin that contaminates corn and many nuts and is the most carcinogenic natural product in the world and a significant cause of liver cancer,” Kenne says. “My interest in food safety/security helps me build on that while keeping the purpose of my current research on public health rather than strictly bench science.”

With plans to graduate in May of 2016, Kenne envisions a career conducting research that can continue to combine food safety and security with environmental health, possibly with an organization like the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the meantime, he is pleased with his ability and the Arnold School’s support to integrate his varied interests thus far. “Regardless of your area of focus, public health is very interdisciplinary, so take advantage of the vast resources from the many departments within the Arnold School,” Kenne advises current and prospective students. “It will give you different perspectives and likely open more opportunities and directions while improving your work and research.”


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