I followed a career path interested in unearthing more of these facts. I went to graduate school for microbiology, and continued on with more microbiological studies as a post-doctoral fellow. As a post-doc, I was given the opportunity to develop an upper-level course focusing on microbial pathogenesis course, where I had the opportunity to inspire the next generation of fact finders.
I chose a book for the course (based largely on admiration for the scientist for whom it is named: Moselio Schaechter). Writing a lecture on skin microbiota one day, I looked at a section about the skin inhabitant (and occasional pathogen) Staphylococcus aureus. The information sounded familiar to me, so I checked the bibliography – sure enough, one of my grad school classmates was cited.
Dr. Amanda Brosnahan, now an assistant professor at Concordia University-St. Paul, MN, studied S. aureus as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. I contacted her to ask her a few questions and discuss how it felt to have her work published in a textbook.
Scientista Foundation (SF): First of all, congratulations on being cited in a textbook! What is S. aureus and why were you interested in studying it in grad school?
Amanda Brosnahan: (AB)
I was fascinated with infectious disease. After majoring in microbiology as an undergraduate, I knew that I wanted to study bacterial pathogenesis (or how bacteria cause disease). S. aureus is an interesting pathogen because it can reside on and in our bodies without causing any problems, but for some people (infected with specific strains) that bacterium can cause very severe disease through a multitude of virulence factors.
SF: What was your specific project?
AB: My project was to examine some of the staphylococcal virulence factors and how they contributed to disease that started in the vaginal mucosa. I focused most of my research on bacterial toxins known as superantigens, which are capable of skewing the normal immune response to the bacterial infection.
SF: Why were you interested in this project?
AB: This project appealed to me because it intersected the areas of bacterial pathogenesis and the human’s immune response to that pathogen. I find the interplay between what the host (human) does to prevent infection and what the pathogen (S. aureus) does to cause disease very fascinating. You get to study the disease from both sides that way.
SF: What was the hardest part about staying focused on one project for so many years?
AB: More often than not, the experiments you are trying to carry out don’t work. It’s hard to continue to troubleshoot projects if you aren’t curious about the end result. I tried to maintain my curiosity as much as possible. I also explored other side projects during that time just to have something else to focus on every now and then. Some of those side projects ended up being publishable, too, so it worked out well for me. You have to love what you’re doing or it’s not going to work.
SF: How does it feel to have your work cited in a textbook?
AB: It’s pretty cool! I think it’s every scientist’s hope that the work they do will somehow contribute to the advancement of science. I hope that even the tiny pieces that I contributed make some small difference along the way!
SF: Does your work have any practical applications?
AB: Some of my work with S. aureus in the vaginal mucosa was examining how the body’s normal inflammatory response may actually be detrimental to the host. In some cases, it appears that the inflammation may allow the bacterial toxins (superantigens) to gain access to underlying tissues, which is where they mediate their toxic effects. Other projects in my graduate lab were examining ways in which we could temper that inflammatory response to prevent disease from starting from the vaginal mucosa. This has broader applications for other infections that may start from the vaginal tract, such as sexually transmitted infections like HIV.
SF: Do you continue to do research on S. aureus?
AB: I’m not currently doing bench research on S. aureus as I have recently taken a teaching position at Concordia University - St. Paul. Instead, I am editing a volume on methods used to study bacterial superantigens for Methods in Molecular Biology, so I can keep tabs on the field. I also spent some time as a post-doctoral researcher studying the effects of neurotransmitters on the vaginal epithelial cellular response to superantigens, so I was able to utilize my knowledge from graduate school in a completely different context.
SF: What advice do you have for young scientists who want to make their own discoveries?
AB: You have to be curious about how things work. If you can maintain a passionate curiosity in your research, then you will stay driven enough to continue to search for new discoveries even when it seems impossible.
Some people describe scientific careers as a calling from when they were young. That was not the case for me; I had many interests and had not settled on a major when I began my freshman year of college. While exploring my different interests, I took an introductory biology course.
The discussion section of this course included some of the basics of biology (DNA codes for mRNA, which in turn codes for proteins), and the ability of retroviruses to break these rules. We also learned about the recently discovered self-propagating Prion Proteins (resistant misfolded proteins prone to accumulation and aggregation and subsequent plaque formation in the brain and neural tissues, leading to degenerative diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, kuru, and mad cow disease).
Prion biology fascinated me. Not only was the discovery of a novel protein-based contagious disease intriguing, but the resistance with which the idea of prions was met strongly illustrates the slow-moving nature of scientific discovery. Stanley Prusiner, the scientist who had discovered prions, prevailed in the end He generated enough data to support his claim that a non-nucleic acid could, in fact, cause infectious disease. For Prusiner, he attained the epitome of acceptance by his peers when he won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Medicine. For me, after completing my introductory biology class, the take-home message was this: scientists don’t have all the answers because science evolves and FACTS CHANGE.
Julie Wolf is a research scientist studying infectious disease at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and improving scientific communication in traditional and nontraditional settings. Julie has taught at CUNY Bronx Community College, Long Island University, and the Brooklyn-based community biolab, Genspace. She writes for Scholastic Science World and the Scientista Foundation.