Wednesday, August 3, 2016

URSP Student Highlights: Claire Johnson

My name is Claire Johnson, and I am a rising senior at George Mason.  I am majoring in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry and minors in both biology and bioinformatics.  I have been working with Dr. Robin Couch in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry since the fall of my junior year.

My project is focusing on the development of novel antibiotics, which is essential due to easily engineered and natural evolution of antibiotic resistance.  Naturally evolving antibiotic resistance poses a huge world health issue as “super bugs” become more common.  Engineered resistance is concerning as these strains of bacteria could be used by terrorist groups for biological warfare. 

The model organisms that the Couch lab utilizes are Yersinia pestis, Francisella tularensis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and Plasmodium falciparum.  Y. pestis and F. tularensis are both biothreat agents classified by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) as Category A priority pathogens.  This means that they “pose the highest risk to national security and public health” because they are extremely contagious and have high mortality rates.  M. tuberculosis and P. falciparum are causative agents of tuberculosis and malaria, respectively.  M. tuberculosis has two antibiotic resistant strains, known as multidrug resistant TB and extensively drug resistant TB, which makes tuberculosis a major world health concern.  P. falciparum is also a significant public health threat, with nearly half of the world’s population at risk of contracting malaria.
When designing an antibiotic, it is necessary to select a protein target that is specific to the disease causing bacteria (to avoid toxicity to humans) and necessary for its survival.  Our lab collaborates with Dr. Cynthia Dowd’s synthetic chemistry lab at George Washington University; their lab synthesizes the compounds that I then test against bacterial enzymes for their antibiotic potential.

The research that I am working on is related to my academic and career goals.  After graduating from Mason, I will go to graduate school to obtain a PhD in genetics, then, I plan to stay in academia to both teach at the collegiate level and research medical genetic conditions.