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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 15, 2024

Life in STEM: Mike Kourkoulakos on the Daily, future plans in biology

Senior Mike Kourkoulakos, assistant production director and M.S. student, speaks on his time at the Daily and novel biology research experience with slug microbiomes.

Mike Kourkoulakos is pictured.

Editor’s note: The Daily’s editorial department acknowledges that this article is premised on a conflict of interest. This article is a special feature for Commencement 2024 that does not represent the Daily’s standard journalistic practices.

Mike Kourkoulakos has loved everything science and engineering-related from a young age, but it was during his sophomore year of high school when he really started to feel “connected to biology.” After taking two biology classes in high school, Kourkoulakos decided that biology was his calling and what he wanted to pursue in college.

In his hometown Mahwah, N.J., Kourkoulakos participated in newspaper layout at his high school. He decided to bring his experience to the Daily, as the pandemic was having a major effect on his student experience. “I joined [the paper] during the COVID semester when things were out of whack and I was looking for something to do,” he said. “I joined [the Daily’s] Layout [section] because it was one of the few clubs doing things in person. 

After serving as a layout executive for two semesters, Kourkoulakos took on the larger role of production director in spring 2023, overseeing all the moving parts of getting the Daily’s many articles and issues published. Kourkoulakos particularly enjoyed the fast pace of publishing news articles. “People rely on us to put out the news. … And it’s hard, … but I’ve also really appreciated being able to work [with others to do so].”

Even when production became stressful, Kourkoulakos said that he and other students at the Daily felt their work was enjoyable and that “[Daily members] could still laugh with each other and be friends.” Kourkoulakos found a special camaraderie in the hustle of the Daily office. He has since worked as an executive social media manager and assistant production director as well, contributing his valuable skills to other sections of the Daily.

While juggling his commitments to the Daily with his coursework, Kourkoulakos became more involved in biological research. He interned at Pfizer for two summers in clinical and diagnostic assay development — optimizing tests to detect the presence of pathogens and antibodies. In his first summer, Kourkoulakos fine-tuned an assay for the influenza virus while working under a senior scientist. He then shifted projects in his second summer to work on an E. coli assay.

Kourkoulakos also offered some general advice that he used in these positions at Pfizer and in life: “Just go for it. It can be kind of intimidating being around people who know what they’re doing, but it’s okay to make mistakes.”

He shared that college is truly a testing ground to branch out one’s interests in as many ways as possible. “You won’t be perfect, but it’ll get easier over time,” he said.

Since his time at Pfizer, Kourkoulakos has become a master’s of science student at the Wolfe Lab at Tufts. While most accelerated master’s degree programs are “4+1,” meaning a person will receive their master’s and bachelor’s degrees in five years, Kourkoulakos is currently on track to receive both of his degrees in only four years. Since starting at the Wolfe Lab in the fall, Kourkoulakos has worked on two projects related to microbiology, which is the study of microscopic organisms.

Scientists have studied the slug gut microbiome — the composition and function of microbial communities in an organism — to understand how slugs metabolize carbohydrates. Researchers are currently looking for ways in which these metabolic processes of slugs create biofuels for heating, electricity and transportation. However, there is not as much literature on the applications of slime residues that slugs produce.

Last fall, Kourkoulakos worked on characterizing the slime microbiome to understand more about the microbes growing on them. “Slugs can harbor pathogens that transfer to plants,”  Kourkoulakos said. “At the same time, the slime potentially has applications in skincare for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. … It is really novel work.”

This semester, Kourkoulakos is surveying commercially available cheeses, looking for penicillin-resistant microbes on cheese. He hopes to garner insight into how common the genes that foster penicillin resistance are and their overall function.

In the future, Kourkoulakos hopes to earn a Ph.D. “[My Ph.D.] will most likely be in microbiology, but I’m keeping my options open,” he said.

After graduation, Kourkoulakos will be working in a Harvard Medical School lab as a technician to work on more projects and gain experience. When it comes to getting into research, Kourkoulakos suggested, “get started early. I entered late in the game. The Wolfe Lab was very receptive to having people come in and learn new things even if they just came to a lab meeting. … Getting involved early is a great way to boost your scientific career.”

Kourkoulakos dives headfirst into everything he does. His drive has allowed him to establish a place as an integral member of the Daily and a key researcher in the Wolfe Lab — and it will continue to propel him into great success in his postgrad years.

Natalie Bricker contributed reporting.