Female in a white lab coat poses in a lab.

Kathryn Blethen is a PhD candidate in the West Virginia University School of Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences Program. On December 16, she will become a member of a special group of more than 200,000 alumni as she graduates from WVU and begins her professional career at Duke University's Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center. But before she does, let’s take a look at her unique journey which includes both the arts and the sciences. (Photo caption: Blethen poses for a photo in a lab at the School of Pharmacy).

PhD candidate reflects on her journey of music and science

At first glance, PhD candidate Kathryn Blethen's journey to academic success may seem like a linear progression from biological sciences to pharmaceutical sciences. Still, there's a hidden melody in her story.

Blethen, a graduate student in the West Virginia University School of Pharmacy’s Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Sciences program, will participate in the University’s Commencement Ceremony on December 16. But rewind to her freshman year at WVU, and her graduation day might have looked very different.

While attending high school near her hometown of Julian, a small community in southern West Virginia with a population of less than 900, Blethen was a member of the Appalachian Children's Chorus (ACC) for four years. The choir offered her the opportunity to perform in some of the most prestigious venues across the globe including the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, the Waikiki Shell Amphitheatre in Hawaii, and the Vatican in Italy.

“We typically sang classical music and choral arrangements of West Virginia songs,” said Blethen. “During the holidays, we performed Christmas carols with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.”

After high school, Blethen set out to turn her passion for music into a profession. “When I was applying to colleges for my undergraduate studies, I originally considered a degree in music therapy,” said Blethen. “But I fell in love with immunology and microbiology lab my freshman year and never looked back.”

Blethen received her bachelor’s degree in Immunology and Medical Microbiology from WVU in 2018 and chose the WVU School of Pharmacy to advance her education.

“I chose WVU to pursue my PhD because the research here is innovative and impactful, the faculty is compassionate, and it felt like a second home to me.”

Blethen says she is thankful for the many mentors that she’s had at WVU including Dr. Paul Lockman, professor and senior associate dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives in the School of Pharmacy, and Dr. Marina Galvez, teaching associate professor. “I would not be where I am today without their mentorship and enthusiasm for research,” she said.

Blethen defended her dissertation titled, “Right Treatment Wrong Time: Timed Immunotherapy Administration Post-Radiotherapy Decreases Tumor Burden in a Preclinical Model of Brain Metastasis,” in September. In January, she will take the next step in her academic and professional career and begin work at Duke University's Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center in the neurosurgery department. Her roles will involve researching the treatment of brain tumors, as well as contributing to various ongoing clinical trials.

While Blethen focuses on her ultimate career goal of directing neuro-oncology clinical trials, she is eager to explore the musical landscape of her new community as well. She’s already looking for choirs to join in the Research Triangle to meet people who share her enthusiasm for singing.