Fighting Biothreats

Microbiologist Kasandra Hunter-Whitfield (B.S. ’13, biological sciences) works on the front lines of the government’s biodefense program to help protect those who serve.

As the daughter of a career U.S. Marine, Kasandra Hunter-Whitfield (B.S. ’13, biological sciences) has always felt a deep connection with the men and women who dedicate their lives to serving their country.  

“I’ve always had a close connection with the military,” she explained. “It’s always had a piece of my heart.”

Kasandra Hunter-Whitfield
Kasandra Hunter-Whitfield. Photo courtesy of same. Click image to download hi-res version.

For Hunter-Whitfield, family visits on base and her father’s stories about deployments in places like Korea and Lebanon were a regular part of growing up. But when she was in high school and her dad deployed to Virginia for a new assignment, it made a life-changing impact.

“He was deployed to Richmond and worked very closely with wounded warriors who were coming home from the war in the Middle East and needed lifesaving treatments,” Hunter-Whitfield explained. “We often went to visit him, and we got very close with a lot of the families there. Just seeing the way that these warfighters had been impacted by war—it made a huge impression on me.”

Hunter-Whitfield may not have fully realized it at the time, but those experiences with wounded warfighters would set the stage for her future career. Today, as a lead scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton, she supports the Department of Defense in its biodefense program, fighting threats that can put our forces at risk.

“I work to advance the development of countermeasures against biothreats,” Hunter-Whitfield said. “I have a passion for making sure that I’m doing whatever I can to ensure our warfighters are protected and that they go into the field with the best resources to bring them back home healthy, alive, in one piece.”

A passion for biology

Growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Hunter-Whitfield was always interested in science, but when she took a microbiology class in high school, something just clicked.

“I loved it and that really ignited that passion for biology in me,” she recalled. “I think my first experience with a microscope—probably where I plated bacteria for the first time—that was a huge part of it. You leave it and there’s nothing you can see. Then you come back maybe a day or two later and something grows—that concept was just really fascinating to me.”

Happy and grateful to receive a Banneker/Key Scholarship, Hunter-Whitfield went all-in as a microbiology major at the University of Maryland, participating in the Ronald E. McNair Scholars  Program and later joining Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Professor Daniel Stein’s lab, using molecular, genetic, cellular, and biochemical techniques to unravel the mysteries of the human pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae. For Hunter-Whitfield, the undergraduate research opportunities available to her at UMD went far beyond anything she had imagined.

“As I look back on those research experiences now, I’m kind of wowed by it myself,” she said. “I think as I became more and more passionate about microbiology, about research, I really wanted to broaden my skill set and experiences in the lab even further. I just grabbed at any chance I could to get involved in the laboratory setting and I’m really grateful to the people who gave me the opportunity to do that.”

Hopes of a future career fighting biothreats were never far from her mind. In addition to her lab work and biology classes, she also took courses in counterterrorism. The summer before her senior year, an opportunity at the Naval Research Laboratory took her one step closer to her goal.

“The focus of our research at the Naval Research Lab was on wound repair and wound healing, seeing if bandages could be seeded with fibroblasts and other wound repair agents to find out if that would help accelerate healing, sort of revolutionizing bandaging for the warfighter,” Hunter-Whitfield explained. “By the time I left there, I pretty much knew I wanted to have a career in biodefense.”

Hoping to do more extensive work with pathogens, Hunter-Whitfield left the Naval Research Lab in 2013 and began her graduate work in emerging infectious diseases at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. There, she identified and characterized a novel metabolic regulatory protein, AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), in Schistosoma mansoni, a human parasite prevalent in areas including sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and parts of the Caribbean. She published her findings and presented them at national and international science meetings before earning her Ph.D. in 2020.

Taking on radiological threats—and COVID-19

Hunter-Whitfield’s next stop was an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), taking on radiological threats—and COVID-19.

“At that time, BARDA was doing a lot to support the development of COVID vaccines and therapeutics, so I did support some of that work, but primarily I was with the Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures Division,” she explained. “The work there was supporting radiological and nuclear countermeasure research, developing therapeutics to help mitigate the effects of radiological damage and bolster our defenses in the event someone was to nefariously use radiation or a nuclear device.”

A year later, Hunter-Whitfield joined Booz Allen Hamilton, which was her ideal biodefense opportunity.

“On the Booz Allen side of the house, my role is lead scientist. We’re on a contract supporting the Department of Defense in their biodefense program,” Hunter-Whitfield said. “On the contract side of the house, my technical title is SME—subject matter expert. I’m supporting the development of countermeasures—mainly therapeutics—for viruses and bacterial agents, biological warfare.”

In this role, Hunter-Whitfield uses her experience and her skill set as a scientist to advance research aimed at fighting biological threats to military forces and civilians.

“A huge piece of what I do is advising the government in making good partnership selections, whether it’s with a private biotech company or a research institution,” she said. “They come to the government and say they have a therapeutic or a vaccine that they think would be useful against one of the biothreat organisms that are of concern to the Department of Defense and ask, ‘Would you like to team up, can we develop this, can we get it licensed by the FDA?’ And my job is to say whether this would be a good investment and support the government in managing these investments.”

Connecting the dots

Every step of her journey as a microbiologist prepared her for this role.

“Being able to see a lot of these new technologies before they take off and how this field is evolving is a really great position to be in,” Hunter-Whitfield said. “I like that I’m able to use what I’ve learned, what I’ve done in the lab and what I’ve seen to connect the dots.”

Away from work, Hunter-Whitfield has been active in science education through the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in community service through the historically Black sorority Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. And she recently added an important new role: mom. Hunter-Whitfield’s daughter, born in 2023, has given her a whole new perspective on her role as a scientist.

“It makes me all the more passionate about making sure we have the right therapeutics to combat everything. I'm like, ‘If we don’t have something for this particular bug, we need it, let’s put some money into it,’” she explained. “It definitely has given me a newfound sort of fire to really make sure the impact that we’re making in the work that I do is far-reaching and can really make a difference.”

For Hunter-Whitfield, every day working in biodefense is a new opportunity to make an impact and honor the people who inspired her from the start.

“I know my dad is really proud of me, and I know I can positively impact the warfighter and the public,” Hunter-Whitfield said. “These therapeutics we’re working on are hopefully going to be on the market eventually, and they will help make someone better. That’s something that definitely keeps me going, that huge appreciation that I have for what we can do.”

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and nine interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.