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Trainee Spotlight: Grace Vick

Ph.D. student Grace Woods

My name is Grace Vick and I am a 4th year infectious diseases PhD candidate in Vasant Muralidharan’s lab. I’m originally from North Carolina and received my Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from Western Carolina University. After graduating undergraduate, I completed an internship at the Defense Forensic Science Center doing forensic biology research. After that, I spent 2 years as an ORISE Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studying and identifying genetic markers of multi-drug resistant strains of Neisseria gonorrhoeae. I came straight to UGA through the ILS program after my fellowship at CDC.

What made you want to study science?

Ever since I was little, I’ve always spent a lot of time being outside in nature and enjoyed figuring out the intricacies of how things work. During my undergraduate, I was able to explore the different areas of science and found the molecular biology of genetics to be an interesting field that is highly translatable and still vastly unknown. After I spent a few years gaining lab experience and an appreciation for the public health concerns of infectious diseases at the CDC, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD in that field which brought me to UGA.

Why did you choose UGA?

My experience at the CDC offered the opportunity to learn about diseases and public health issues across all sectors and countries, which led me to learn more about parasitic diseases. Previously, I knew nothing about these diseases but as I learned more about their complex and fascinating life cycles and how these diseases of poverty impact people around the world, I was captivated by this research. Because I was really interested in spending my PhD studying infectious and parasitic diseases, I found out about the CTEGD at UGA and that is what brought me here. The CTEGD is a really wonderful environment for trainees to be exposed to exciting and diverse parasitology research, and I’ve really enjoyed my experience here.

What is your research focus and why did you choose it?

Our lab works on the deadliest form of malaria, Plasmodium falciparum. P. falciparum kills over half a million people each year, with the majority of those deaths being children under the age of 5. Our lab is interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that are essential to asexual blood stage of this parasite. My work specifically focuses on determining the role of previously unknown proteins that we have discovered are essential for asexual stage invasion of merozoites into host red blood cells. Using a combination of genetic engineering, molecular, and cellular biology techniques, I aim to determine the molecular function of these proteins in the human asexual stage invasion of red blood cells.

Have you received any awards or honors?

In addition to receiving the NIH T32 Predoctoral Fellowship, I have been invited to present at multiple national and international conferences such as Molecular Parasitology Meeting in Massachusetts and Molecular Approaches in Malaria in Lorne, Australia where I won a poster award.

What are your career goals?

When I graduate with my doctoral degree, I hope to either join governmental research or the industry sector. If I decided to head into governmental work, I would choose a career at the CDC where I could continue working in the parasitology research field and apply current public health policies to the international parasitology field. If I decide to join the biomedical industry sector, I would want to work in Research and Design at a company that designs therapeutics and diagnostics for disease prevention and treatment.

What do you hope to do for your capstone experience?

I would really love to experience fieldwork in a malaria-endemic region. I think having the experience of meeting people and learning firsthand how this disease affects millions of people every day would be very eye-opening for me since I have only seen the lab side of malaria. The ability to experience fieldwork would give me a broader experience with how malaria is researched and treated outside of the lab environment and in rural lab environments. I would love to visit Africa or South East Asia to conduct fieldwork in a malaria-endemic environment.

What is your favorite thing about Athens?

Obviously, I love the food in Athens! I love going downtown to grab food and drinks on the weekend. Otherwise, I enjoy getting out and exploring the green spaces and parks that Athens has to offer such as Sandy Creek and the North Oconee Greenway with my husband and dog.

Any advice for a student interested in this field?

I would say the best advice is to read and soak up as much as you can about parasitology both before you get into the field and after. A lot of research has overlap between different parasites and it’s helpful to know about other parasitic diseases that might not be your main focus. Plus, parasites are fun! 🙂 My other advice in general for starting graduate school is to always reach out to students in labs you’re interested in joining. Students are pretty much always willing to help give clear insight into lab dynamics, mentorship of the PI, and generally how life working in that lab is. That information is all really helpful to know when choosing which lab to join!

 

Support trainees like Grace by giving today to the Center for Tropical & Emerging Global Diseases.

Two CTEGD trainees receive AHA fellowships

Photos of Graduate student Baihetiya “Barna” Baierna and postdoctoral fellow Mayara Bertolini
Graduate student Baihetiya “Barna” Baierna and postdoctoral fellow Mayara Bertolini received fellowships from the American Heart Association, supporting their research and education. Both are studying parasites in the University of Georgia’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. (Photos courtesy of CTEGD)

 

Baihetiya “Barna” Baierna, a cellular biology graduate student in Silvia Moreno’s laboratory, received an American Heart Association Pre-doctoral Fellowship. It will fund her training for the next two years as she studies the mitochondrion of Toxoplasma gondii.

Baierna grew up wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a scientist.

“My mom worked for the regional CDC in China and I was interested in science since a young age,” Baierna said.

After completing her undergraduate degree in biochemistry, she was sure she wanted to continue her training in graduate school. After being accepted into the Department of Cellular Biology program, she joined the Moreno Laboratory.

Toxoplasma gondii infects approximately one third of the world human population. The infection can cause serious complications in people with a suppressed immune system. Baierna’s research aims at validating novel T. gondii mitochondrial proteins as novel chemotherapeutic targets for improved chemotherapy of toxoplasmosis. This is important because the present drugs are not effective against the chronic stages of the infection. She has developed novel strategies for the discovery of new mitochondrial proteins and already found a novel enzymatic activity highly divergent from the mammalian counterpart. The outcome of this project will expand the knowledge of the T. gondii mitochondrion, as well as helping with the identification of viable drug targets.

“An AHA Fellowship is a very competitive award, but Barna deserves it and we are very proud of her,” said Moreno.

“Preparing the grant proposal was a great learning experience and it will help me with my career development,” said Baierna, “I’m very happy that it was funded.”

Mayara Bertolini, a post-doctoral fellow in Roberto Docampo’s laboratory, received an American Heart Association Post-doctoral Fellowship. It will support her training for one year.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Bertolini obtained her master’s degree in a lab that Docampo had set up in Brazil working on T. cruzi. From there she decided to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. She completed her Ph.D. in 2023.

Trypanosoma cruzi is the parasite that causes Chagas disease. At least 6 million people, mostly in South America, are infected with the parasite. T. cruzi is transmitted to humans through the feces of an insect commonly referred to as the kissing bug. While Chagas disease was first discovered in 1909, there is still a lot that is unknown about the biology of T. cruzi. This lack of knowledge has hindered drug development. Bertolini’s project is focused on the role of polyphosphate during the Trypanosoma cruzi life cycle.

“This is the second fellowship from the AHA that Mayara has received. She got a two-year pre-doctoral fellowship before and has done outstanding work,” said Docampo.

“AHA Fellowships are very competitive and I’m thrilled my proposal was selected,” said Bertolini. “In addition to supporting my training, there is support for career development and networking opportunities.”

 

The story originally appeared at https://research.uga.edu/news/two-ctegd-trainees-receive-aha-fellowships/

Trainee Spotlight: Corey Rennolds

Corey Rennolds

 

My name is Corey Rennolds, and I’ve been a postdoctoral researcher in Tania Rozario’s lab at UGA since August 2022. I’m originally from Cobb County, GA, where I went to grade school, received my B.S. in Biology from Georgia Tech in 2013, and completed my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2022.

What made you want to study science?
The big bucks, baby!! More honestly, I enjoy learning how things work for its own sake, and I liked the idea of a career spent always learning more about how things in the world work. I started as an undergraduate in engineering but quickly switched to biology when I realized that I was more interested in natural systems than artificial ones (and that I wasn’t very good at calculus). I have other interests of course, but science translates the most smoothly of those into a stable and rewarding way to make a living.

Why did you choose UGA?
I’m originally from the Atlanta area and spent a lot of time in Athens when I was an undergraduate, even though I went to Tech. Now living and working here feels like coming home for me. I finished my PhD and wanted to continue in a research-oriented direction as a postdoc in an academic setting, and UGA is a big, well-funded institution with a strong biology contingent and several faculty in the ballpark of my more narrow expertise. Altogether, it seemed like a good fit.

What is your project/research focus and why did you choose this research focus?
Dr. Rozario learned during her own postdoctoral work that the rat tapeworm Hymenolepis diminuta requires a population of stem cells maintained in the adult worm in order to grow and regenerate, but there was little information on how these cells are activated, how many different varieties there are, their plasticity, and how they differentiate into mature tissue types. Dr. Rozario wanted to hire a postdoc with experience in transcriptomics and regenerative biology in non-model organisms, which is fortunately my background. I thought the project was really interesting with opportunity to do novel work that would stand out. It also gives me the chance to learn a lot of cutting-edge techniques that can be valuable for my research in the long term.

Have you received any awards or honors?
Aside from the T32 postdoctoral fellowship through the CTEGD, I received a few scholarships, fellowships, and other awards during graduate school, including small research grants from Sigma Xi, the Cosmos Club, and Washington Biologists’ Field Club. I would also be remiss not to mention my first-place finish in the most recent CTEGD chili cook-off.

What are your career goals?
I spent most of graduate school as a TA (tip for prospective graduate students: ask your PI about funding!) and so racked up plenty of experience in teaching and discovered that I really enjoy doing it. I want teaching to be a significant part of my career activities going forward, as opposed to just full-time research. Research-wise, though, I am interested in building an independent research program focused on bridging evolutionary-developmental biology with comparative and ecological physiology. To put it simply, I want to study how living things grow, develop, and repair themselves, where and how they get the resources to do these things, and how those processes are affected by environmental factors, including over evolutionary timescales. Working with intestinal parasites is definitely an interesting and challenging context for thinking about these sorts of broad questions.

What is your favorite thing about UGA and Athens?
Athens is close enough to Atlanta to access its amenities but far enough away to be its own ecosystem free of the sprawl. It’s big enough to have a little of everything, including a vibrant and diverse arts scene, but small enough to get to know most of the people in whatever sphere you want to be involved in. The university offers plenty of opportunities for both intellectual stimulation and less-intellectual partying. The traffic isn’t too bad.

Any advice for a student interested in this field?
Don’t settle too much. It is perfectly fine to have standards during your education and assert yourself when called for. You should study what you enjoy, attend school somewhere you want to be, and work with people you get along with. Not everything will be perfect and you should learn when to compromise, of course, but it’s your life and your career. If something isn’t working out, make a change, and be open to alternative paths—if I didn’t take the initiative to change course when I did, I wouldn’t be a biologist now. Think carefully about what is in your best interest personally and professionally in both the short and long term. Also, learn when to identify opportunities to learn something useful or gain valuable experience. In CTEGD, there are a lot of different technical resources, training and professional development opportunities, and diverse faculty expertise; make use of all these things, it’s what they’re there for!

 

Support trainees like Corey by giving today to the Center for Tropical & Emerging Global Diseases.

Undergraduate Research Experience Sparked Interest in Parasitology for Graduate Student

doctoral student Victoria Mendiola

My name is Victoria Mendiola and I am a PhD candidate in Dennis Kyle’s lab studying drug-induced dormancy in Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for malaria. I have been at UGA for four years but originally received my BSc in Biology and MSc of Integrative Biology from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, GA.

My interest in infectious diseases stems from an NSF REU research internship where I was first introduced to the complexities of parasite-host interactions on an organismal level by studying hookworm infections in South American fur seals (SAFS) in the Gottdenker Lab at UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

During my REU, I fell in love with Athens and the scientific community in the area but the large number of tropical disease parasitologists solidified my reason for choosing UGA to continue my studies.

My doctoral research focuses on developing novel high-content imaging assays to incorporate Artemisinin-induced dormant Plasmodium falciparum recovery into the current understanding of drug treatment, therapeutics, and prevention. Of the species of Plasmodium that infect humans, P. falciparum is the deadliest and, unfortunately, is becoming resistant to current treatment options.

In August 2023, I received the CTEGD Training in Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases fellowship. In addition to providing up to two years of funding, there is also the opportunity for a capstone experience. I plan to use the capstone project opportunity to gain essential in-field, on-site training to complement my current wet lab skillset.

My long-term career goal is to utilize my diverse training in physiology, developmental biology, cellular biology, and infectious diseases to design, optimize, and implement phenotypic and behavioral assays in the context of drug discovery and parasite homeostasis.

For students who are interested in joining the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, I suggest they take every opportunity to talk to other researchers in and out of their field and organism of study. The sense of community within the CTEGD is unparalleled and should be utilized at every given opportunity. The friends I have made in and outside of the lab is one of my favorite things about being here at UGA (but the local festivals are really fun too).

Support trainees like Victoria by giving today to the Center for Tropical & Emerging Global Diseases.

Fagbami named 2022 Burroughs Wellcome Fund PDEP Fellow

postdoctoral fellow Lola Fagbami
UGA’s Lọla Fagbami, winner of a Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2022 Postdoctoral Diversity Enrichment Program fellowship, is a native of Lagos, Nigeria, who relocated to the United States with her family in the late 1990s. She is passionate about expanding scientific literacy through outreach and mentoring as well as refuting chemophobia—the fear of or aversion to chemicals and chemistry. (Photo by Lauren Corcino)

Lọla Fagbami, a postdoctoral research associate at UGA, has been awarded a Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2022 Postdoctoral Diversity Enrichment Program fellowship.

Fagbami, UGA’s first PDEP Fellow, conducts research on the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. She works with Vasant Muralidharan, associate professor of cellular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, who nominated her for the award.

“Dr. Fagbami has excellent training in metabolomics, mass spectrometry and Plasmodium drug discovery. Her exceptional work as a graduate student has shown how human malaria-causing parasites use metabolic adaptation to induce antimalarial drug resistance. Dr. Fagbami is a fearless, highly intelligent, accomplished and outstanding scientist who will be a leader in our field,” Muralidharan wrote in his nomination letter.

“Her research project addresses a major gap in the field that has enormous implications for malaria elimination and eradication efforts,” he added.

The PDEP award provides $60,000 over three years to support career-development activities for historically excluded minority postdoctoral fellows pursuing academic careers in biomedical or medical research, according to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

“This award is an investment in me as a scientist and leader and will help advance my career to the next level,” Fagbami said. “I am excited to join the extraordinary community of PDEP scholars and also connect with program alumni who have successfully made the transition to research independence.”

Fagbami earned a B.S. in chemistry at Emory University, an M.B.S. and an M.P.H. in health policy at Rutgers University, and a Ph.D. in chemical biology at Harvard University.

Increasing the knowledge base on brain-eating amoeba

graduate student Cassie Russell in front of biological safety cabinet in Dennis Kyle's laboratory at the University of Georgia
Cassie Russell, a graduate student in the Department of Infectious Diseases, in her laboratory space. (Photo by Ian Bennett)

Cassie Russell, a graduate student in the Department of Infectious Diseases, was an undergraduate when she first heard of Naegleria fowleri, also known as the brain-eating amoeba. While whole lectures in her parasitology course had been dedicated to other parasites, N. fowleri was barely a mention.

“I remember maybe 15 minutes was spent on it,” said Russell. “I was shocked that was all that was known about this deadly organism.”

N. fowleri causes the acute neurological disease primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). There have been hundreds of reported cases of PAM, but only seven survivors worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SEM image of Naegleria fowleri
Scanning electron microscopy image of Naegleria fowleri (submitted by Cassie Russell)

“I had the opportunity to speak with families in Florida who had lost someone to Naegleria fowleri infection,” she said. “The fear they had in not knowing what was wrong with their loved one and then learning that there was very little that could be done—their stories were just heartbreaking.”After arriving at UGA, Russell was pleased to find out that N. fowleri was one of the parasites being studied in Dennis Kyle’s laboratory at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.

Individuals, most commonly young children, become infected when they inhale warm freshwater contaminated with N. fowleri. This typically occurs during the late summer months when people are participating in recreational activities in rivers and lakes, but it can also occur when people use unsterilized tap water in nasal irrigation devices. It is more likely to occur in the southern United States, but infection is very rare. Between 2011 and 2020 only 33 cases were reported in the United States, according the CDC.

N. fowleri is one of the most neglected of the neglected tropical diseases. However, knowledge about the parasite has been growing since the 1960s as scientists build on new data and apply new technology. Russell is doing her part and was the lead on a study recently published in Microbiology Spectrum where, for the first time, drug susceptibility was tested across 11 clinical isolates.

“Current drug treatment is a cocktail of six different drugs,” said Russell. “However, only a few isolates have been tested in the lab for susceptibility. We don’t know if some drugs work better for different strains.”

A big question facing researchers is why these drugs show effectiveness in the lab when so few real-world cases have been successfully treated. Russell suspected that other factors were at play in treatment failure, such as genetic differences among geographically distinct amoeba populations.

The 11 isolates used in the study came from patients who contracted N. fowleri in different geographic regions. Russell found that these isolates had significant differences in susceptibility to seven of the eight drugs currently used to treat the infection.

The need for effective and fast-acting treatments is especially great. PAM is almost always fatal, with death occurring about a week after the initial onset of symptoms.

Doctors are racing against the clock as there is often a delay in diagnosis: The symptoms mimic meningitis, and N. fowleri is a rare infection. The drugs used can also be pretty toxic, so identifying the safest and most effective drug treatment could significantly improve outcomes.

Russell’s findings are another stepping stone to propel N. fowleri research toward increased understanding of this parasite and ultimately better treatments. For example, she realized that there is not a gold standard for genotyping.

“Researchers could be talking about genetically different isolates but not realize it,” said Russell.

In addition to creating a genotyping standard, she has identified combinational drug studies to test for synergism as a next step. For now, though, Russell is focusing on another need in the fight against N. fowleri—diagnostics.

“Awareness, improved diagnostic techniques and faster-acting drugs are needed to improve outcomes,” she said.

 

This story first appeared at https://research.uga.edu/news/increasing-the-knowledge-base-on-brain-eating-amoeba/

Trainee Spotlight: Justine Shiau

Justine Shiau

Justine Shiau, an NIH T32 fellow in Dr. Dennis Kyle’s laboratory, is originally from Taipei, Taiwan, and moved to the states after elementary school. She received her bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Pennsylvania State University, where she became interested in disease transmission, disease ecology, and parasitology while working with Dr. Ashutosh Pathak. Upon graduation, she moved to Athens to continue her training with Dr. Pathak, who at that time was working in the transmission ecology of vector-borne diseases with Dr. Courtney Murdock. Over the next two years, she took part in research projects revolving around vector biology and mosquito-transmitted pathogens. She was accepted by the UGA Integrated Life Science graduate program in Fall 2018.

In the Kyle lab, Justine is currently working on the transmission stages of Plasmodium falciparum, a human malaria parasite that causes significant mortality worldwide, specifically on the biology of the parasite transitioning from the vector to the human and the early stages within the human, prior to disease onset. She aims to complete the parasite’s life cycle in a laboratory setting, which would be a powerful tool to help further our understanding of the host-parasite interactions. She hopes to better understand the parasite biology and the transmission dynamic that the mosquitoes could have on the downstream infection in humans, which can potentially help us better understand and combat this horrible disease.

Why did you choose UGA?

UGA has one of the finest insectary facilities that allows the transmission of Plasmodium falciparum. Additionally, the Center of Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases (CTEGD) is the hub for parasitologists. The Center provides state-of-the-art infrastructure, research equipment, and, most of all, a supportive environment to cultivate and train graduate students to meet our goals.

What is your research focus?

Plasmodium falciparum is a parasite that causes malaria, which 50% of the world’s population is at risk of getting. Many children die from malaria every year; we cannot effectively prevent diseases and transmissions without a well-rounded understanding of the parasite’s biology and the essential players (mosquitoes) to complete its life cycle. My overarching goal is to complete the parasite’s life cycle in the lab. Currently, we are focusing on the biology of the parasite and its transition from mosquito back to human and within the human: from liver-to-blood stage infections. While doing this, there are two primary objectives that I would like to meet. First, I want to better understand the important factors for the parasites to establish infection in the human liver cells. Second, I am curious whether the mosquito stage infection can also impact the parasite’s efficiency in establishing infection in the human liver.

What are your future professional plans?

After graduate school, I hope to continue my postdoctoral training. I would like to pursue interdisciplinary research, with crosstalk between disease-ecology, parasitology, and vector biology.

Any advice for a student interested in this field?

Be open-minded and respectful to people with different expertise and people with diverse backgrounds.

 

Support trainees like Justine by giving today to the Center for Tropical & Emerging Global Diseases.

Trainee Spotlight: Benjamin Phipps

Benjamin Phipps

Benjamin Phipps is an NIH T32 trainee in Michael Strand‘s laboratory. Originally from Woodland, California, Benjamin earned his bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and biology and a minor in chemistry from the University of North Texas in May 2019. While at UNT, he studied the influence of mixed vehicle emissions on regulation of the renin-angiotensin system with Dr. Amie Lund and programmed translational frameshifts in Streptomyces bacteriophages with Dr. Lee Hughes. Benjamin earned research support and two travel grants to report his findings for his undergraduate projects. In August 2019, he enrolled in the Integrated Life Sciences (ILS) program at UGA and completed several laboratory rotations in parasitology before joining the Strand Research Group. He has served as treasurer of the Genetics Graduate Student Association and currently serves in that role for the CTEGD GSA.

Why did you choose UGA?

I chose UGA for its strong track record in research and breadth of research topics. I enrolled at UGA through Integrated Life Sciences, a gateway Ph.D. program that allows incoming students to explore several life sciences departments before choosing one for their dissertation home. This allowed me to experience a greater range of research topics than if I had enrolled directly in a single department. I also developed an interest in parasitology in the last year of my undergraduate program and therefore was drawn to CTEGD, one of the largest and most active centers for parasitology research in the world.

What is your research focus/project and why are you interested in the topic?

Many mosquito species must feed on vertebrate blood to produce eggs, and thereby can transmit several blood-borne pathogens of humans. Malaria is by far the deadliest of these, killing hundreds of thousands of people each year. Suppressing mosquito populations is an attractive approach to curbing transmission of malaria. Two promising targets for limiting mosquito reproductive capacity are the communities of microorganisms that reside in the mosquito gut, which are thought to influence fecundity by aiding blood digestion, and hormones mobilized in response to the blood meal that regulate egg formation. Malaria parasites have an antagonistic relationship with mosquito gut microbes and exploit resources generated for egg production after the blood meal. My dissertation project focuses on how mosquito gut microbes influence malaria infection by modulating reproductive signaling. This research has the potential to identify microbial species that might be exploited for malaria control, as well as elucidate important functions of gut microbes in preventing infections in animals.

What are your future professional plans?

I am presently most interested in a career in academia because I enjoy mentorship and science writing, but I remain open to other opportunities.

What do you hope to do for your capstone experience? 

For my capstone experience, I would like to draw on my training in both parasitology and Spanish language to travel to Colombia or Venezuela, where malaria is declining but still endemic. Potential activities there would involve characterizing endemic anopheline populations and their vectorial capacity.

What is your favorite thing about UGA?

I really enjoy the collaborative atmosphere of life sciences at UGA. Groups such as CTEGD provide many opportunities to interact with students and faculty from diverse departments.

Any advice for a student interested in this field? 

Be sure to get involved in research as soon as possible, preferably early in your undergraduate program. Reach out to professors whose work interests you, as well as members of their team. It’s fine not to know what specific topics you want to pursue right away; your initial research experience will help you determine what interests you most, and there will be many opportunities to explore diverse fields in graduate school and beyond.

 

Support trainees like Benjamin by giving today to the Center for Tropical & Emerging Global Diseases.

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Ph.D. candidate Ale Villegas and advisor Vasant Muralidharan receive Gilliam Graduate Fellowship Award

Ale Villegas and Vasant Muralidharan
PhD Candidate Ale Villegas and Advisor Dr. Vasant Muralidharan (Photo Courtesy of Vasant Muralidharan)

Malaria’s connection to Georgia goes back to the colonial period. The Southeastern United States provided prime conditions for a thriving mosquito population which ensured the spread of the disease. The state capital moved from Louisville to Milledgeville in 1806 in part because of malaria outbreaks among the state’s General Assembly.

Later, the federal Office of Malaria Control in War Areas was established in Atlanta instead of Washington D.C. because of its proximity to malaria. The center was succeeded in 1946 by the Communicable Disease Center which is now the Centers for Disease Control. While Malaria was mostly eliminated in the U.S. by 1951, it still impacts millions of people around the globe. Cue Ale Villegas, a doctoral candidate in Cellular Biology.

Villegas and her advisor, Dr. Vasant Muralidharan, were recently awarded a Gilliam Graduate Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The goal of the fellowship is to increase the diversity among scientists who are prepared to assume leadership roles in science. The program selects pairs of students and their dissertation advisers based on their scientific leadership and commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

Villegas’s research is on the edge of the unknown. She works with Muralidharan in UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases where they aim to understand the parasite that causes malaria.

“I’m exploring the mechanisms by which malaria parasites develop in human red blood cells,” said Villegas. “I am studying Plasmodium falciparum, the most common and deadly species that infects humans. These studies can inform therapeutic treatments in the future.”

 

PhD trainee Ale Villegas
PhD Candidate Ale Villegas. Villegas is in the cellular biology department. (Photo Courtesy of Ale Villegas)

Villegas specifically studies a malaria parasite glycosyltransferase or an enzyme that adds sugar molecules to other biomolecules. These enzymes may be needed by the parasite to survive and resist the immune response. There are few experts or studies in this area, but Villegas saw beyond those challenges to the critical importance of understanding malaria immune response.

“She is a very talented young scientist who has undertaken a challenging and high-impact research project,” said Muralidharan. “Her initial work was fraught with technical difficulties and setbacks, most of which are attributable to the difficulties in working with the hard-to-study malaria parasite. I am very impressed by her toughness and intellectual capacity as she solved one technical issue after another. She is now poised to move the field forward in a meaningful way.”

Villegas has also worked with Dr. Robert Haltiwanger and his graduate students in the Complex-Carbohydrate Research Center at UGA to advance her research. Haltiwanger is a leading expert on fringe-like glycosyltransferases like the enzyme she studies.

“Having Dr. Haltiwanger on campus is amazingly lucky,” said Villegas. “He and his graduate students go above and beyond when I need help or need to try out experiments. I’m glad to have access to his knowledge, experienced grad students, and sometimes his reagents!”

“What these parasite-derived sugar modifications are and how they form could inform a better vaccine or other drug therapies for malaria,” said Villegas.

Rings of P. falciparum in a thick blood smear. (Photo Courtesy of CDC)
Rings of P. falciparum in a thick blood smear. (Photo Courtesy of CDC)

Malaria still kills around 450,000 people each year. Most of these victims are children under the age of five. There are no effective vaccines and the parasite has gained resistance to all antimalarials currently in clinical use. Villegas’ research on this parasite sugar-adding enzyme could have important implications for future treatments and vaccine development.

The Gilliam Fellowship allows Villegas to pursue other passions in addition to science. She is a leader in student advocacy and devoted to helping students gain access to resources to advocate for themselves.

“I practice and promote student and self-advocacy by serving on the UGA Graduate Student Association and the student science policy group (SPEAR),” said Villegas. “With fellow SPEAR members, I have organized advocacy days workshops to empower students to advocate for themselves and issues they are passionate about.”

“I have found that those who are most successful understand failure very well,” said Muralidharan. “We need to normalize this. We are working to figure out the unknown. Failure in science is normal, and it is critical for discovery.”

Vasant Muralidharan
Dr. Vasant Muralidharan’s lab utilizes molecular genetics, cell biology, and biochemistry to study the biological mechanisms driving the disease.

The award also provides funding for Muralidharan to develop mentoring skills and to share those skills with other faculty members at UGA. He has served as a mentor for many either first-generation or underrepresented students in STEM. He explains that scientists need strong support systems, especially when they experience failure in the lab. The people around them help the most.

When Villegas graduates, she hopes to continue working on and learning about science policy and advocacy. Her ideal job would allow her to be a scientist in addition to being an advocate for graduate students and a creator of equitable graduate education policies.

The Gilliam Graduate Fellowship provides Villegas an opportunity to move closer to her goals and to contribute to potentially life-saving research that could reduce the global threat of malaria.

 

Announcement from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

This story originally appeared at UGA’s Graduate School.

Trainee Spotlight: Mayara Bertolini

trainee Mayara Bertolini

Mayara Bertolini is a third year Ph.D. trainee in the laboratory of Dr. Roberto Docampo. She has recently been awarded a predoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association.

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I am from São Paulo, Brazil and I have always been a very curious person that likes to discover unique things. Over time, I realized that biology was one of my favorite subjects, especially when it came to diseases. I decided to major in Biomedical Sciences at the Faculdade Anhanguera de Santa Bárbara D’Oeste (São Paulo, Brazil). After my graduation, I performed voluntary research training at the Laboratory of Bioenergetics of the Department of Clinical Pathology (School of Medical Sciences) of the State University of Campinas (Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil) under the supervision of Dr. Anibal Vercesi. Thereafter, I joined the Master’s program to continue my training as a scientist. There I met Dr. Roberto Docampo, who has collaborated with Dr. Vercesi for many years. Since then, I joined his research group, where Dr. Miguel Angel Chiurillo and Dr. Noelia Lander were also members of a very productive team, which has stimulated my fascination for research in parasitology. During my master’s, I was awarded a fellowship from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) to perform a functional study of the regulatory subunits Mitochondrial Ca2+ Uptake 1 (MICU1) and 2 (MICU2) involved in calcium signaling in the parasite that causes Chagas disease, Trypanosoma cruzi. My master’s project elucidated some questions and opened doors to interesting new topics, which our group is very excited to explain.

Why did you choose UGA?

I wanted to continue working with the same model to improve my scientific thinking and to complete my laboratory training, and the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases (CTEGD) at UGA has a wide range of researchers working with trypanosomes. Pursuing my Ph.D. at UGA is an extraordinary opportunity because of CTEGD’s unique infrastructure, which consists of extremely qualified professionals and resources that facilitate the development of research projects.

What is your research focus? 

T. cruzi is one of the least well understood neglected tropical disease agents and current treatments remain inadequate partly due to a general lack of knowledge of this parasite’s basic biology. We are particularly interested in establishing the role and interaction between mitochondrial proteins involved in Ca2+ uptake in this organelle. Understanding the mechanisms of adaptation and survival of the parasite upon environmental challenges, as changes in concentration of free Ca2+, will lead to important insights into the biology of this parasite and the evolution of Ca2+ signaling in eukaryotic cells. Considering that disruption of Ca2+ homeostasis by toxic agents is related to the loss of cell viability, the identification of the possible differences in mitochondrial Ca2+ transport between these parasites and the host cells could be useful for the development of new chemotherapeutic agents against Chagas disease. The purpose of the AHA predoctoral fellowship is to enhance the training of students who intend to pursue careers as scientists aimed at improving global health and wellbeing, and I feel like I can contribute to this mission.

What are your future professional plans?

After my graduation from UGA, I hope to continue for a postdoctoral research position. In the future, I would like to establish a research group in Brazil using trypanosomatids as biological models for studying the structure and function of proteins.

Any advice for a student interested in this field?

Don’t be afraid to try new things and learn from it.

 

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