Lehigh University
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Taking aim at drug-resistant bacteria

Michelle Juarez ’16 has been studying mycobacteriophages since she was a freshman, first in Lehigh’s SEA-PHAGES Program and more recently in an independent study project.

In the fight against diseases caused by bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics, medical researchers are turning to viruses called bacteriophages.

Bacteriophages infect bacteria and replicate within them after injecting their genome into their host’s cytoplasm. Bacteriophages have been used in European countries as an alternative to antibiotics.

Michelle Juarez ’16 embarked on a study of mycobacteriophages during her freshman year as a student in Lehigh’s SEA-PHAGES Program, which is directed by Vassie Ware, professor of molecular biology in the department of biological sciences. In the program, students isolate and characterize bacteriophages that infect a host related to the mycobacteria that cause tuberculosis.

Under Ware’s supervision, Juarez has continued her phage research in an independent study project in an effort to shed light on gene functions that are unknown in certain classes of mycobacteriophages. She is attempting to discover the function of gene gp57, which is found in only one group of related bacteriophages.

“There are thousands of bacteriophages yet to be discovered,” says Juarez, who majors in behavioral neuroscience. “This creates great uncertainty in the field but also opens up many possibilities for research.

“Thousands of different genes and gene functions remain to be discovered as well, which could give scientists insight into their potential uses in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

A summer at Harvard

This summer, Juarez is honing her research skills in a paid internship at Harvard Medical School. She is working with Constance L. Cepko, professor of genetics, who studies the retina, with a focus on the degeneration and regeneration of photoreceptors in the eye and on gene therapy techniques that may help prevent blindness.

The 10-week stay at Harvard was made possible when Juarez was accepted into the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Juarez was nominated for EXROP by Ware, who with Neal Simon, professor of behavioral neuroscience in the biological sciences department, directs the HHMI grants that Lehigh received in 2006, 2010 and 2014. The grants promote interdisciplinary research and research opportunities for students and seek to retain students who are enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

The goal of HHMI’s EXROP program is to provide summer research experiences to undergraduate students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Since the program began in 2003, EXROP has matched 654 undergraduates with 202 HHMI investigators, professors, group leaders and scientists.

“Lehigh really helped me prepare for an experience like this,” says Juarez. “For a program like EXROP, an applicant needs to have research experience, so there probably won’t be many my age who have been accepted.”

Outside class, Juarez is a member of the Association of Student Alumni (ASA), the Phi Sigma Pi honor society, Multicultural Affairs and the Latino Student Alliance. She is also an ambassador and a tour guide for the office of admission.

“I love science, but it’s not the only thing I’m focused on,” she says. “I’m a part of so much on campus and there’s still so much more that I want to join.

“This school gives you so many resources to do anything you want. If you have a passion, there is someone here who can help you pursue your dreams.”

Photos by Ryan Hulvat

Story by Jaime DellaPelle '14

Posted on Friday, May 30, 2014

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