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From Bacteriophages to Drug-resistant Bacteria

Aislinn Rowan ’14 has always had an intense interest in science. Lehigh has provided her many opportunities to convert her passion into a career, and Rowan has not failed to capitalize.

by Lehigh University
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Aislinn Rowan ’14 has always had an intense interest in science. Lehigh University has provided her many opportunities to convert her passion into a career, and Rowan has not failed to capitalize.

“I think it’s great,” says Rowan, who double-majors in biology and psychology, “that I can actively learn new things.”

As a freshman, Rowan was selected to participate in Lehigh’s Eckardt Scholars Program, which exempts qualified students from arts and science distribution requirements. In return, scholars must complete two select seminar classes, do independent research under the guidance of an adviser, and write a senior honors thesis.

As a sophomore, Rowan was chosen for the PHAGES (Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) research program, which is sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance. Lehigh is one of several schools chosen by HHMI to take part in PHAGES.

As a PHAGES participant, Rowan worked with Vassie Ware, professor of biological sciences, and James Bowen ‘14 on a study of bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria. She took random samples of phage from the environment, isolated one and studied its genetic material.

With Ware’s help, Rowan and Bowen attended a conference in Virginia where they won a first place prize for the presentation of their research poster.

Four different university programs, including Lehigh in Ireland, have helped Aislinn Rowan '14 launch her career in biological research.Photo courtesy of Lehigh UniversityIn the summer before her junior year, Rowan began working in the lab of Linda Lowe-Krentz, professor of biological sciences, on a study of mammalian endothelial cells, which line the walls of blood vessels.

When cells experience certain kinds of stress, several signaling systems, or pathways, within the cell are activated. Of the three main pathways, one tends to favor survival and two tend to favor cell death. “There is a competition between the pathways,” says Rowan.

Using the inflammatory protein TNF-α to stress the cells, Rowan and her research group are attempting to determine the levels of proteins called transcription factors to determine which pathway a cell undergoes.

The group looks for proteins that are indicative of a certain signaling pathway. They tag these proteins with fluorescent antibodies to make them visible and then examine the cells with a fluorescent microscope to determine protein levels and localization within cells.

Cell signaling processes, says Rowan, “are the way that cells regulate everything: when to grow, when to move, when to make new proteins.”

Rowan began her project with Lowe-Krentz through the biological sciences department’s Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute in 2012 and has continued to work on it the past two academic years.

Last summer, her interests in biology research took her to Ireland as part of the Lehigh in Ireland Program. She spent nearly seven weeks at the National University of Ireland in Galway working in the lab of James P. O’Gara, head of the microbiology department and professor of infectious disease microbiology, on a strain of highly drug resistant bacteria called MRSA. In humans, MRSA can cause severe skin infections and other serious illnesses.

Rowan and her research group acquired a clone library from the Center for Staphylococcal Research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The center had inserted transposons, movable parts of genetic material, into non-essential genes of MRSA’s genetic code. Rowan’s group cultivated the bacteria, deposited them on agar petri dishes, and exposed them to the antibiotic oxacillin. The strains that developed colonies on the petri dishes remained drug-resistant.

There are approximately 2,000 non-essential genes in the strain of MRSA on which Rowan worked. By the time she completed her internship, she and her group had screened about 1,000 of those genes and identified one potential candidate whose elimination may have affected the bacteria’s ability to resist oxacillin.

Now back at Lehigh, Rowan is continuing to work with Lowe-Krentz. Her endothelial cell project will likely comprise her Eckardt senior thesis.

After she graduates, Rowan plans to continue studying biology in graduate school. Eventually, she hopes to become a university professor.

“I have had so many opportunities through Lehigh,” she says. “If you want to do real research here, you never know what you’ll find yourself doing.”