Alecia Septer

Alecia Septer is an assistant professor in the Department of Marine Sciences within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. She researches how bacteria compete for space and resources to aid in the development of future treatments for when such microbes cause health problems.

Alecia Septerphoto by Megan May
October 30th, 2019

Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A: Like most kids, I went through a series of dream professions including nursing and teaching. But I think the one that had the longest run was archaeologist. I was obsessed with the idea of solving mysteries of the ancient world. Looking back, I think that I was most attracted to discovering something new and important, which I get to do now as a researcher.

Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

A: I always liked science and understanding how life works, but it wasn’t until my senior year of high school when I found a field that really captured my imagination. It was in Mrs. Bush’s AP Biology class at Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio, where I first learned about life at the microscopic level, including the functions of cells and the structures inside of them. I chose microbiology as my major at The Ohio State University — and have been hooked ever since.

Alecia Septer and her daughter

Septer with her daughter, Tessa.

Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

A: This question made me laugh because, as a mother of a 1-year-old and head of a research lab, when am I not encountering a tricky problem? When I was in my sixth year of my PhD, the lab I was in moved to a newly renovated space. The lab was great, but once I resumed experiments in the new location, one of my key results vanished. Something that repeated many times just stopped happening. This work was supposed to be a dissertation chapter and a publication, but not if I couldn’t repeat the findings. I spent weeks troubleshooting the experiment and systematically replacing each component of my growth media to find the problem. Finally, I had replaced everything but the water, which was a different source now that we moved labs. I went back to the old lab to remake media with that water and — poof — I was back in business. I learned not to give up on myself and that water chemistry is important.

Q: Describe your research in 5 words.

A: “Even bacteria experience sibling rivalry.”

Q: What are your passions outside of research?

A: I love being active. I play racquetball and enjoy spin class, yoga, Pilates, and jogging with my husband and daughter. I also value time with family and friends, as well as a nice coffee or glass of wine. I find that I feel my best and think most creatively when I have good balance in my life.

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