With a national grant, an undergrad is helping pinpoint what keeps cholera bacteria alive and kicking.
By Mary Jo Patterson
Senior Selime Aksit was always fascinated by science, but two years ago she realized her real passion was science on a molecular level. She asked chemistry professor Jane Liu if she could volunteer in her lab. “I said I was interested in learning how to do research and asked if she’d mind if I did things for her,” recalls Aksit. “She started me with really basic stuff, like how to grow bacteria.”
Aksit eventually joined a lab team of Drew undergraduates studying how a particular RNA molecule affects the cell function of Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera. Last spring she was awarded an Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the American Society of Microbiology, funding 10 weeks of further research with Liu. Aksit’s experiments last summer tested the team’s hypothesis that the RNA acted as a switch for a gene that produces a protein allowing the bacterium to take up a certain sugar and survive. “Right now, we’re in the very baby steps of discovery, but the molecular mechanisms we reveal might help some company—maybe 10 years from now—make therapies or cures,” says Aksit, who in June will present her findings at the society’s annual meeting in San Francisco.
Cholera, an ancient killer, remains a threat in developing countries. Outbreaks occur when water and food supplies become contaminated in areas with poor sanitation, as in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. If untreated, the disease can lead to death, and existing vaccines have limited effectiveness.
Aksit, a first-generation Turkish-American with a major in biochemistry and microbiology and a minor in studio art, plans to pursue a dual M.D.-Ph.D. degree. What sets her apart from other students, according to her mentor, are her lab skills and her drive. “She has an incredible level of energy,” says Liu. “You get the sense there is absolutely nothing she can’t do, nothing she can’t figure out.”