Microbes, Molecules, and a Love of Biology

 

by Lauren A. R. Tompkins

Lauren’s STEM of choice is Science with a focus on microbiology and immunology. She studied for many years to get where she is, first at The College of Wooster for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and at The University of North Carolina for a Master of Science degree in Microbiology and Immunology, researching reservoirs of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) throughout the human body, with a focus on the brain. She is now pursuing a career in science journalism and freelance writing. In her spare time, outside of work, Lauren also loves reading about science in the news and delving into a good research article. If there was one thing she wished she’d known before college about STEM, it would be “[that] science isn’t a unidirectional path lacking bends, turns, and forks in the road – you make your own way and figure it out as you go”.

Introduction

My dad taught science to high school students for 30 years in Cleveland, Ohio. I guess you could say there is a genetic component to my interest in science, but I think it all began with an inherent curiosity about life. I remember investigating my Dad’s biology textbooks when I was a kid, perusing the pictures and diagrams with interest, reading strange-sounding words like “mitochondria” and “pulmonary,” curious about their meaning. It never ceased to amaze me how our bodies are essentially sacs of water and bones, yet our minds have the ability to reason and invent, create and love. So, understanding how the body works always intrigued me.

Materials and Methods

In high school, I took honors and advanced placement courses in the sciences, specifically in biology and chemistry. I then searched for colleges with strong programs in the sciences in the context of a liberal arts education. The beauty of a liberal arts education is in its well-rounded, holistic approach to learning. Students are required to enroll in unique courses outside of a selected major of study, often including studies in humanities, sociology, and art. At the College of Wooster, I was able to major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, while still taking Comparative Film Studies and Abnormal Psychology. Wooster also emphasizes the importance of solid writing skills in life and in any profession, so most of the courses I took were writing-intensive.

Each student at Wooster completes an independent study (research) project in his/her senior year. As a science major, I planned and conducted a series of experiments towards a research goal of my own design, culminating in a written thesis and oral defense. My project was essentially in drug design, under the umbrella of organic chemistry, with the aim of combatting antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection. Conducting my own research was a completely different experience from instructional lab work as part of a course requirement. It’s far more exciting to think independently in the context of one’s own work, and science truly comes to life in this way. My experience at Wooster solidified my decision to pursue a career in biomedical science.

The most memorable experience that I had in college was when I studied abroad in Australia. Some of my most cherished memories are from my time spent on the other side of the world. I still dream about the Great Barrier Reef – the color of the water, the feeling of floating in another world, the incredible creatures of the sea. In Australia, I spent much of my time in the Reef, either scuba diving or snorkeling, eagerly awaiting the next wonder the ocean held. I learned to rock climb and surf; I camped on remote islands and drove the Great Ocean Road; I sailed around the Whitsunday Islands and swam with sharks. Every chance I had to conquer a fear, I took it. I am who I am today because of Australia, and I urge every young person to try to join a study abroad program. Never pass up an opportunity for adventure!

After college, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Albert Z. Kapikian at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) just outside of Washington D.C. Dr. Kapikian, who is recently deceased, was an extraordinary scientist and humanitarian whose invention and dissemination of rotavirus vaccines has affected the lives of innumerable infants and young children. Rotavirus infection causes diarrhea and dehydration, which in severe cases lead to death. In fact, roughly 500,000 children die from rotavirus infection annually, despite the existence of highly effective vaccines. Children of developing countries largely shoulder the rotavirus disease burden, as facilities and funding for vaccine production are limited. To address this issue, Dr. Kapikian pioneered an international rotavirus vaccine program, which licenses rotavirus vaccine technology to manufacturers in developing countries for self-sustainable production. The ultimate goal of this program is to promote the distribution of affordable, life saving vaccines to children in need. I served as a manager for the vaccine program, where I communicated with licensees, provided support and troubleshooting advise during vaccine production, and performed experiments to confirm vaccine composition and quality. This experience was incredibly rewarding for me, and in commemoration, I have a framed photograph of a Ghanaian infant receiving a dose of one of our vaccines hanging on my wall at home.

During my time at the NIH, I also conducted research and published a paper examining viral molecular epidemiology, essentially characterizing strains of viruses that caused severe diarrhea in children of developing countries. I found that I enjoyed lab work and decided to continue my education in pursuit of a career in scientific research. I was accepted to several graduate programs and decided to attend the University of North Carolina based on educational and research merits as well as a generally collegial, friendly atmosphere. I joined the laboratory of Dr. Ronald Swanstrom to study the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Dr. Swanstrom was among the first HIV researchers who heralded discoveries in the composition of the HIV genome and viral replication strategies. My research project was centered on analyzing reservoirs of HIV throughout the human body. HIV reservoirs are currently a hot topic of study due to their significance in finding a cure to HIV infection, which is incurable, but treatable. HIV persists in the human body over long periods of time in the form of a reservoir, which is a place in the body where the virus survives, avoids recognition by the immune system, and is protected from the action of drugs that treat HIV infection. Treatment regimens are responsible for controlling most of the infection, but since they do not affect viral reservoirs, these drugs must be taken throughout life to prevent disease progression and associated pathologies.

After about three and a half years of graduate school, I realized that my career aspirations were changing, becoming refined. Although I greatly enjoyed my years at the lab bench conducting experiments, I found that reading and writing about science was by far the most interesting to me. I yearned for a creative platform to discuss topics in science to a general audience, in hopes of cultivating interest in the field so that we may improve our world through positive change. After speaking with science journalists and freelance writers, I decided to graduate from my program with a Master of Science degree rather than continue on to a doctorate, so that I could pursue a career in science writing and communication. When I think about it, I’m not that surprised that I ended up in a career centered in writing, given my history at Wooster. I am excited to embark on this new adventure, a career that suits my passions of discovering, learning, and contributing to a better world.

Results

Right now, I am working as a freelance writer and editor in the biomedical sciences. I’m at the beginning of a career in science writing, so I’m currently building a portfolio of work. For now, my income is mostly from editing scientific articles to improve flow, clarity, and grammar. I am also contributing to blogs, composing story pitches to publications, and even doing a little creative writing. Since I am my own boss, I can choose what scientific topics to study, which opens up so many possibilities to learn about exciting new research. I also work from home and make my own hours. The greatest challenge has been in transitioning from structured to unstructured time throughout my day. I have to be self-motivated to do my job, which takes discipline and focus. At the same time, when I’m suffering from writer’s block, I can choose to do something else productive, like research new science articles, until my writing muse returns. My income is not steady as a freelancer, but I love what I do, I have a great work-life balance, and I’m always optimistic that opportunities will arise with effort and perseverance.

Discussion

As I am a virologist in training, I am most interested in infectious diseases, especially outbreaks of microbes that we know little about, such as the Zika virus and its likely contribution to microcephaly in fetuses of infected mothers. With the upcoming Summer Olympics being held in Brazil at the heart of the Zika outbreaks, I am curious, and concerned, about how increased travel to the area will affect the prevalence of the virus in other regions of the world. Mosquitos are the main culprits for spreading Zika, but it’s beginning to look like the virus is also transmitted person-to-person, at least sexually. Can we control these outbreaks through the use of mosquito repellants and netting? Or are we playing with fire when we risk exposing millions of people to Zika this summer? These are some of the questions I think about addressing through writing.

 

 

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