Improving Health

UArizona Researchers Team Up to Address COVID-19 with the Help of TRIF and BIO5 Support

researchers in white lab coats examining a specimen
Research projects will address the pandemic from various angles, including public health, virology and drug discovery.

As of April 28, more than 6,500 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the state of Arizona. To address this burden on a local and global scale, thirteen UArizona teams have been awarded more than half a million dollars to explore virology, prevention and treatment, epidemiology, and psychology associated with COVID-19.

For nearly 20 years, the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) has enabled UArizona researchers to conduct high-impact work by building up the scientific expertise and specialized equipment capacity at UArizona that allows swift response to scientific crises such the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last four year cycle, projects in infectious disease, immune system, and respiratory function have been seeded with over $5.8M.

As a rapid response to the pandemic, TRIF resources were quickly used to establish a seed grant mechanism. Interdisciplinary teams of two or more researchers representing their individual colleges and the BIO5 Institute were encouraged to pitch basic science, technology, clinical or population-based research projects that directly addressed COVID-19.

Fifty-five teams submitted seed grant applications. Their proposals were judged on potential impact, teamwork and use of core facilities.

Thirteen successful applicants were awarded up to $60K each. Over the next six months, teams will quickly pivot their existing research and draw upon their unique skills to address wide-ranging aspects of the pandemic.
 

Team of researchers working together
Genetics, Evolution and the Viral Lifecycle

Representing the College of Medicine – Tucson, Samuel Campos, Scott Boitano and Ken Knox will study an evolutionarily adapted aspect of the novel coronavirus. By understanding the modification of a key viral structure, Campos, Boitano and Knox aim to provide insight on infection and disease spread. Data and knowledge generated from their work may inform potential prevention and treatment strategies.

team of researchers working together

Identifying Potential COVID-19 Therapeutics through Image-Based Screening
Curtis Thorne, assistant professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, and Koenraad Van Doorslaer, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will use image-based screening to identify compounds that prevent viral replication in lung cells. They’ll also develop a technique to study replication of the novel coronavirus and plan to share it with other UArizona researchers studying COVID-19.

Team of researcher working together

The Use of Copper in Preventing Viral Persistence
Not just a coating for pennies, copper has been shown to have a negative effect on the novel coronavirus. Virologist Van Doorslaer will also team Michael Johnson, assistant professor of immunobiology, to investigate the ability of copper compounds to prevent the infection and replication of a related coronavirus. If successful, the team will test successful compounds against the novel COVID-19 virus.

Team of researchers working together

Improving Efficacy and Minimizing Toxicity of Anti-Malarial Drugs Against COVID-19
Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, two anti-malarial drugs, have shown promise as COVID-19 treatments through clinical studies in France, Italy and China. However, researchers are concerned about the safety and effectiveness of these compounds. Jianqin Lu and Xinxin Ding of the College of Pharmacy will use nanotechnology to improve the delivery of these drugs. Through this method, they aim to enhance drug efficacy and minimize toxicity.
Team of Researchers working together
Boosting the Immune System to Combat COVID-19
Directly targeting the virus is just one strategy researchers can use to treat COVID-19. Because of the severe gap in knowledge regarding the novel coronavirus, some researchers propose that developing a virus-targeted approach may not be quickly achievable. Instead, Lu will team with Yin Chen to explore whether enhancing COVID-19 patients’ immune systems can treat their infections.

Team of researchers working together

Novel Compounds to Enhance Anti-COVID-19 Activity and Safety
Because clinical studies of anti-malarial drugs have provided uncertain evidence regarding their utility, a third pharmacy team will test novel inhibitors in treating existing infections. Wei Wang, Steffan Nawrocki and Jennifer Carew will use the anti-malarial drugs as the foundation for designing similar, yet distinct compounds. By doing so, these experts in drug discovery and viral biology aim to identify new compounds which may prove to be safer and more efficacious.

Team of researchers working together

A Local Patient Database to Study Local COVID-19 Impact
Researchers representing medicine, pharmacy and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health will collect COVID-19 patient data from BUMC-T inpatient and BUMC Family Medicine Clinics. With this information, Karen Lutrick, Dean Billheimer and Brian Erstad will create a local database to allow for a greater understanding of disease impact on our local health system. Further, this database will provide a useful tool for future COVID-19 UArizona research efforts.

Team of researchers working together
Creating Foundations to Understand COVID-19 in Arizona
A public health team will also create a database to better understand the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 in our area. Kristen Pogreba-Brown, Kate Ellingson, Pamela Garcia-Filion, Elizabeth Jacobs and Kacey Ernst will collect data from patient interviews to determine acute risk factors and disease symptoms. They will also initiate a long-term study to generate a database that can be used by all Arizona investigators addressing COVID-19.

Team of researchers working together

Characterization of Critically Ill COVID-19 Arizonan Patients
Because our current understanding of the disease is limited to emerging, highly variable case reports, a third team will produce a database with information on hospitalized COVID-19 patients in our state. Vignesh Subbian, assistant professor in the College of Engineering will work with Jarrod Moiser of COM-T to compile patient characteristics and document the safety of their care. Through their efforts, they aim to better understand the clinical characteristics and courses of seriously ill COVID-19 patients in Arizona.

Team of Researchers working together

Using Genetics to Study the Origin and Spread of COVID-19 in Southern Arizona
To date, only one viral genome has been recorded for Arizona COVID-19 cases. Michael Worobey and David Baltrus plan to add nearly 40 more genomes to GenBank, a repository curated by the National Institutes of Health. In addition to contributing data, the group seeks to understand the relationship of the Arizona outbreak to the national epidemic. By comparing viral genomes across the country, the group plans to determine origin of COVID-19 in Southern Arizona and the number of transmission chains in the area.

Team of researchers working together

Understanding Vulnerability to COVID-19
The novel coronavirus is highly infectious in older adults and those with pre-existing critical health conditions. The reasons for this vulnerability are currently unknown. Immunobiology department head Janko Nikolich- Žugich and associate professor Deepta Bhattacharya will work with Craig Weinkauf, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, to determine the links between these populations and COVID-19 susceptibility.

Team of researchers working together

COVID-19 Risk in Wastewater Treatment Facilities
In addition to traveling through droplets in the air generated by a sneeze or cough, the novel coronavirus passes through the feces of infected individuals. These live viruses can become airborne in wastewater treatment plants, posing a threat to facility workers. A team of five researchers – Luisa Ikner, Walter Betancourt, Jeff Prevatt, Kelly Reynolds and Ian Pepper – will study the risk of the airborne virus to facility worker health.

 

Team of researchers working together

COVID-19 and Brain Function
A hallmark of COVID-19 is the impairment of respiratory function. However, a fourteenth project will assess the cognitive impact of COVID-19. Funded by the Center for Innovation in Brain Science, Lee Ryan of the COS and Meredith Hay of the COM-T will utilize an existing database of over 50,000 individuals to understand brain-related impacts of the infection.

 

About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, biomedicine, pharmacy, basic science, and computational science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, promising new therapies, innovative diagnostics and devices, and improved food crops.
For more information: BIO5.org (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Instagram | LinkedIn).

Local Opinion: The Novel Threat of COVID-19

Royalty free photo by Viktor Forgacs
AZ Daily Star

Dr. Felicia Goodrum Sterling, Immunobiology professor with UArizona College of Medicine-Tucson and BIO5 faculty, discusses the COVID -19 epidemic including our ability and responsibility to protect our community and those most vulnerable. Relatively simple non-pharmaceutical interventions have been effective in limiting infectious disease. These include: washing your hands, covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when sick, disinfecting common areas and surfaces, and social distancing (e.g. avoiding handshakes).

BIO5 Institute Expands its Innovative Biosciences Research Model to Phoenix

Two women holding food and drink talking. A sign with the BIO5 Institute KEYS Research Internship is in the background.
With its focus on strengthening translational research, fostering collaborative projects and training the next generation of scientists, the BIO5 Institute aims to leverage its resources to advance interdisciplinary bioscience research and increase industry connections in Phoenix.
Caroline Mosley, BIO5 Institute

The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona is set to embark on a groundbreaking journey by officially expanding its footprint to Phoenix. This move marks a significant step in fostering collaborative biosciences research across Arizona and beyond. 

“The vision for the BIO5 Institute in Phoenix is to become a catalyzing force for interdisciplinary biosciences research, magnifying connections between Phoenix-based and Tucson-based BIO5 members, utilizing BIO5 resources, and integrating with the larger Arizona biosciences community,” said Jennifer Barton, BIO5 Institute director. 

While the BIO5 Institute already has over a dozen faculty members in Phoenix, the formal expansion to Phoenix is not just a geographical milestone, but a testament to the institute's dedication to advancing biosciences research through collaboration, innovation, and education. 

An open house mixer on November 13 in Phoenix officially launched the expansion by welcoming over 60 members of the UArizona community along with industry professionals. To forge strong relationships with both faculty and the biosciences industry, the BIO5 Institute hired a strategic engagement coordinator, Marissa Starks-Bahn, earlier this year who will be housed at the UArizona Biomedical Sciences Partnership Building. 

“Our goal is to grow our BIO5 membership in Phoenix while providing the same level of services a Tucson member may receive. In addition, we want to play a larger role in connecting our existing Phoenix and Tucson BIO5 members with UArizona resources as well as industry expertise,” said Barton. “We will also be able to better support UArizona Phoenix-based initiatives such as the Center for Advanced Molecular and Immunological Therapies (CAMI) and educational program expansion.” 

Increasing opportunities for translational research 

Strengthening and expanding translational research is a key initiative for the BIO5 Insitute, aligning with the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) funding that helped launch the institute over 20 years ago. This special investment in higher education by Arizona voters is intended to expand major efforts in biomedicine and biotechnology that will provide a return on investment to the people of Arizona. 

A BIO5 member since 2017, Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz and her lab aim to positively impact women’s health by conducting biomedical research with a high translational value in a clinical setting.  

Woman with blonde hair and a dark and white dress stands with a hand on her hip while other women work in the lab behind her
Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz has been a BIO5 member for over six years and directs a program focused on women's health at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.

One current project in the Herbst-Kralovetz lab is endometrial cancer, the 4th most common cancer in women, that can only be diagnosed through painful and invasive procedures.  

Rising obesity rates and an aging female population, two main risk factors, are causing increasing rates of endometrial cancer, particularly in Arizona. But obtaining funding can be difficult for research that isn’t focused on pregnancy and childbirth. 

“Visibility is key for increasing awareness about gaps in women’s health research, particularly aging and menopause, two topics that are understudied,” said Herbst-Kralovetz, a professor in the Departments of Basic Medical Sciences and Obstetrics and Gynecology and director of the Women's Health Microbiome Initiative at the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. "A few years ago, I accompanied Jennifer Barton to the governor’s office to ask for additional funding and support for the BIO5 Institute. That was a great opportunity to discuss the needs in women’s health research here in Arizona and why it needs to be prioritized in terms of funding.” 

She hopes the expansion of the BIO5 Institute’s footprint will lead to more opportunities for her to discuss her research with government officials as well as raising awareness of women’s health conditions within the Phoenix community. 

Jumpstarting critical research and training the next generation 

Another of the BIO5 Institute's key initiatives is providing its faculty members with opportunities for seed grant funding. These smaller grants are crucial support for galvanizing scientific projects that can lead to larger grants and more long-term stability for interdisciplinary research. This strategic approach has proven to be a catalyst for innovation and propelled the institute to the forefront of biosciences research. 

Taben Hale, a professor in the Department of Basic Medical Sciences at the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, joined the BIO5 Institute in 2023. She studies the causes and consequences of high blood pressure to identify novel treatment strategies to allow people to live longer and healthier lives. 

Woman with a dark hair in a bun looks into a microscope as an older woman looks on
Taben Hale has been with the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix for over 15 years, but as a more recent member of the BIO5 Institute, she's interested to look into funding focused on jumpstarting collaborative projects.

“I’m excited to bridge disciplines and tap more broadly into academic and industry connections as a BIO5 member,” said Hale. “Opportunities to get seed grants are critical for stimulating those collaborative projects and generating the preliminary data that is necessary to then obtain federal funding.” 

Furthermore, the BIO5 Institute is committed to shaping the future workforce of scientists through programs like the KEYS Research Internship, the BIO5 Institute’s flagship summer internship program for high school students interested in developing STEM skills under the mentorship of UArizona scientists. Plans to integrate KEYS in Phoenix are already being discussed. 

Another way to prepare the future workforce is providing financial support and mentorship for up-and-coming researchers. Now in its fifth year, the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship is an internal funding mechanism for postdoctoral researchers engaged in research projects aligned with the institute’s mission. The fellowship has already supported several outstanding postdoctoral fellows in Phoenix, 2023 fellow Nicole Jimenez and 2022 fellow Erik Blackwood, with hopes to support more.   

All these initiatives not only nurture emerging talent but also contribute to the institute's overarching goal of advancing biosciences research in Tucson, Phoenix and beyond. 

Women to Watch in Medicine and Science – Shirin Doroudgar, PhD

Shirin Doroudgar, PhD
UAZ Med Phoenix

Shirin Doroudgar, PhD, works as an assistant professor in the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix’s Department of Internal Medicine and is an active member of the Translational Cardiovascular Research Center, where she leads a research group in cardiac molecular biology, focused on understanding changes in protein homeostasis and cellular stress responses that contribute to heart disease.

Science Talks Episode 47: From Wetlands to the Desert, How Can We Make Agriculture More Climate-Friendly?

Science Talks Podcast Episode 47 Featuring Dr. Holly Andrews
Dr. Holly Andrews wasn't necessarily drawn to agricultural research, but her passion for ecosystem science, from parks to wetlands to the desert, has led her to tease apart the physics of soil to find more sustainable solutions for current agricultural practices.
BIO5 Institute

Adding fertilizers to our soil is not as simple as it seems. Plants use some of it, but unseen microbes metabolize fertilizers into gas, including nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to our changing climate. How can we not only understand how current agriculture affects our ecosystems, but also use that knowledge to advance new agricultural technology? Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute interviewed Dr. Holly Andrews, a postdoctoral researcher working with both the Greg Barron-Gafford research group and Laura Meredith ecosystem genomics lab at the University of Arizona who is looking to answer both those questions. She received her PhD from the University of California, Riverside. In 2021, she was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship at the UArizona School of Natural Resources and Environment to work with the Meredith lab and in 2023 was awarded a BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship. She started a joint postdoc position across the Barron-Gafford and Meredith labs in August 2023.

 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

ARB: Before we get started, I’ll ask a couple of fun icebreaker questions not related to research. Can you give us a four-letter word, not a five-letter word, that starts with the letter B? 

My original response was going to be ‘Bear’ as in ‘Bear Down, go University of Arizona!’ Since I got these questions ahead of time, I was chatting with my friends and they said, obviously the four-letter word you're supposed to say is ‘BIO5.’ But five is a number, so I'm going with ‘bear’ for ‘Bear Down.’ 

 

ARB: Both are solid answers. Next question, what is your favorite Catalyst Café order? For those who don't know, the Catalyst Café is our resident BIO5 Institute café. My personal favorite is the prickly pear lemonade. 

I also like the prickly pear lemonade, and all their lemonade and tea combinations. I believe they have a good passion fruit tea, too. 
 

ARB: I was told today to try their pomegranate lemonade! 

You graduated from the University of California, Riverside with your PhD. Are you a native Californian or where are you from? 

I grew up in central Ohio near the Columbus metropolitan region. I did my bachelor's degree at southwestern Ohio at Miami University, and then did a master's at the University of Michigan.  

After experiencing the cold, cold winters in Michigan, I thought, ‘I need to get out of here and go to the southwest.’ That's when I moved to California to start my PhD, and I have not wanted to leave because now I'm in Tucson! 

 

ARB: It’s a little hot here compared to California. What brought you to the University of Arizona? 

My background is in ecology, and I'm interested in ecosystem science. There are so many ecosystem facilities, Biosphere 2 for example, around the University of Arizona campus. Early on in my PhD, I decided I wanted to come here next for a postdoc. That's what led me to write an NSF postdoctoral proposal with Laura Meredith, which luckily got funded, and then come here. 

 

ARB: I’ve always been curious about that process. You didn’t know Laura Meredith ahead of time, but you learned about her work during your PhD and decided that is the kind of lab you wanted to work in? 

Right. My PhD research looked at gaseous emissions from soils, which is what her lab specializes in. One of my mentors early on in my PhD was Rachel Gallery, another faculty member at the UArizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment. She suggested Laura as a great person to write a proposal with because I wanted to add new skills to my research toolbox.  

I ended up cold emailing Laura and saying, ‘Hey, I have this topic I'm interested in, would you like to write this proposal together?’ And she said ‘Yes’. It ended up being a great collaboration, writing the proposal together and then working with her. Since then, I've picked up many new skills that I will carry forward into my career. 

 

ARB: That’s awesome. There’s a whole culture here around ecosystem science. Laura is terrific, she’s worked with us many times. 

What first introduced you to the idea of being a researcher – your ‘aha’ moment in your life? 

I feel like I stumbled into it, but I've always been interested in wildlife biology from an early age.  

My parents are outdoorsy people, especially my dad. They got me involved in local metro parks and volunteer activities. From there, I liked being outside and learning about nature. I was also into music. For a while, I was trying to decide which career path I wanted to take and ultimately landed on biology.  

My freshman year of college, I randomly ran into a faculty member who was looking for undergrads to work in his lab. And it snowballed from there.  

My ‘aha’ moment would be during my junior year of my undergraduate degree. I applied for a fellowship with the EPA, because I was interested in government research and environmental protection. Unfortunately, it's a program that was cut in recent years from the EPA budget. But it was a way to get undergrads involved in research through government labs and agencies. I did an internship program with one of the ecology divisions on the east coast in Rhode Island working in wetlands.  

It was a great experience because they pushed me to design my own experiment and collect the data. I went through the whole scientific process myself with help from my mentors. I was included in a couple of publications that came out of that work. I think it was that moment where I thought, ‘I can do this.’ 

I felt valued as a contributor to science, even though I was still at the undergraduate level.  

From there, I saw research as a potential career. It was fun to do those experiments and learn more about wetland degradation. We were looking at how wetlands along the east coast are being degraded by climate change, as well as urbanization.  

Runoff causes wetlands to lose their resilience that can help counteract hurricanes and other extreme weather events. It was a learning experience to contribute new data and knowledge to this important topic of making sure our ecosystems continue to be sustainable in the face of a changing landscape and climate change. 

 

ARB: That’s very interesting.  

You had two fellowships at the same time for about eight months at the University of Arizona and they overlapped. Were the projects for each of the fellowships the same or different? 

The projects are tackling two sides of the same research question. 

My NSF fellowship tackles agricultural systems and nitrogen cycling in the soil. When we are adding fertilizer to agricultural fields, where does that fertilizer go? We know a small fraction ends up in the plants; we add fertilizers to help the plants grow. But it's not all getting there. Instead, we know that a lot is lost to the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. The number one source of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, is from agricultural soils. That's produced by soil microbial communities, and I want to understand how that happens. 

I don't necessarily want to say, ‘can we engineer our soils?’ But can my research inform how we use fertilizer in our agricultural systems to make them more climate-friendly? Can we make sure when farmers spend money on buying fertilizer it gets into plants? 

I was doing stable isotope analyses, where we injected isotopically labeled fertilizer into the soil to track that process in the field. We want to see where the fertilizer goes – is it incorporated into microbial biomass, so into DNA itself? How much of it is released as gases? How much of it is getting into plants and how are plants using it once they acquire it?  

My BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship builds off that by looking at how nitrogen gases move through the soil, and then leave the soil to go into the atmosphere. Without getting too far into the weeds of the nitrogen cycle – it can be complicated to talk about – there are different ways that these gases can diffuse through the soil. Microbes can eat these gases and use them for their own metabolism. We're trying to track how much of these gases microbes consume and produce. Plus, how fast do gases move through the soil? How does that relate with water because we're irrigating soils? If you're adding water, it can slow the diffusion and movement of those gases through the soil.  

We are teasing apart the physics of the soil system, rather than the biology and some of the other mechanics of agricultural soils. In a way, both these projects are related to nitrogen metabolism in agriculture and fertilizer use, but from two different methodological approaches.  

 

ARB: You’re from the Midwest area and I know there’s a lot of farming there. Did you stumble into this area of research or is there a relationship with agriculture that led you down this path? Where did that curiosity come from? 

It’s funny you asked this question, because I really did not. I was kind of anti-agriculture research when I was first thinking about a direction. I enjoyed working in wild lands, and another reason I moved to the southwest for my PhD was to work in desert systems specifically. 

But I keep finding myself working in agriculture, because it's an important problem we need to address in thinking about the future of society. How are we going to feed everyone and how do we feed everyone in a sustainable way?  

There are all these interacting pieces related to society, wild lands and ecosystems that you can ask in the context of an agricultural system. And so, I find myself coming back to agriculture.  

What I'm finding is that it's more complicated than we think from an ecological perspective. Most people tend to think of agricultural systems as very simplified ecosystems where we are growing one type of crop in one field area. They think there are no interesting questions to ask, but we're finding out that soil is very complex. It's hard to tease apart what's going on in these soils, even though we might think it's a simple question. 

 

ARB: I'm sure these last eight months have been busy keeping up with both projects, but the NSF fellowship has now ended. So now you just have one fellowship that you're working on. Do you see yourself staying at the University of Arizona? 

I would love to stay here, and I've been trying to find something more permanent.  

I started a new postdoc position, which is split across two labs, in the Barron Gafford lab that is also in agriculture. It’s focusing on agrivoltaics, which is the mixing solar panels and solar energy with agricultural cropping systems and different types of agricultural systems. 

The idea is that we bring together our energy and our food in the same land area. There was a report sent out across the university about sustainable agriculture in the future, and agrivoltaics was mentioned as one of those possibilities. This is still very new research. We can ask similar questions in agrivoltaics that we've asked in other agricultural systems, but we might get different answers. What works well in traditional agriculture might not work as well, and we need to think about optimizing the efficiency of that system to be more sustainable. At the same time, we're using less land area to get multiple types of outputs that are useful to society.  

I'm excited to move forward and combine my previous work in the Meredith lab and apply those same ideas in an agrivoltaic setting in the Barron Gafford lab. It's been nice to have this split position where I can focus on one common study site but ask different questions at different scales. In the Meredith lab, I've been focusing on tiny spatial scales, looking at what's going on immediately next to the plant in the soil. And in the Barron Gafford lab, we're zooming out to the field level.  

 

ARB: What does voltaic mean? 

Voltaic is shorthand for anything that produces voltage, which in this case would be solar panels. If you split the word “agrivoltaic,” there's the “agri,” which is agriculture, and the “voltaic” part which is solar panels. This word was generated from the idea that we're putting both of these on the same parcel of land. 

 

ARB: What is your overall personal research goal? Where do you want to see yourself in your research? 

I've been interested in research for a long time, and I want to keep doing it as part of my career. I want to combine research with some kind of educational perspective. When I talk about this, I want to be either in a traditional educational setting, like in an academic institution, or in a government setting that has a substantial outreach program associated with it.  

I think public education outside of academic institutions is equally as important. It connects us with broader policies that we're trying to change and broader thinking about sustainable systems. It’s important that everybody is on the same page about how we can potentially move forward. 
 

ARB: Have you had any influential mentors in your life, either personally or educationally?  

I would say all my academic advisors across undergraduate and graduate school.  

If I'm calling out specific names, I’d have to say my first mentor that I had in research, which was Beth Watson. She was the postdoc that was involved in the project at my EPA fellowship in Rhode Island. She was very inclusive and put me as a co-author on all her papers. I felt valued as a researcher by working with her. It connects with my ‘aha’ moment when I realized I can do research for a career. She was the one that started that process.  

Now, she’s faculty at Drexel University in Pennsylvania. We’ve kept in touch, especially during my PhD when I was doing remote sensing work with drones and flying drones to look at different aspects of ecosystem vegetation. She was doing the same thing in Pennsylvania, and we would email back and forth to talk about it. It was completely different from what we did together in Rhode Island. It's been great to keep in touch with her and she's been so supportive of my whole research career. I needed that when I was going through college. It was nice having women mentors in STEM because it was important for seeing myself in research.  

 

ARB: What’s next for you? Anything else you’d like to share about your future aspirations? 

I just started this new postdoc position, so I'll be sticking around at the University of Arizona for at least another year, potentially longer.  

I've been exploring options in the educational academic sector as well as the government, especially the USDA and USGS that are environmentally and agriculturally focused agencies. At this point, I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to land while continuing research on agriculture; combining energy, food and natural ecosystems and what ecosystem sustainability looks like in the long term.  

 

ARB: Thank you – I have a feeling one of these days we’re going to see your name on something awesome that you’ve discovered to help the future of humans on this planet. 

Science Talks Episode 46: Good Mentorship, Bad Virus: A Journey in Molecular Biology

Science Talks Podcast Episode 46 Featuring Dr. Rebekah Mokry
Dr. Rebekah Mokry talks about how the guidance of supportive mentors helped her find impactful research that focuses on the inner workings of a dangerous virus.
BIO5 Institute

Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) is a herpesvirus that infects a majority of the world’s population. It’s a significant cause of viral induced birth defects and can cause complications in transplant patients or immunocompromised individuals. Amy Randall-Barber from the BIO5 Institute interviewed Dr. Rebekah Mokry, a postdoctoral research associate and 2023 BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Tucson. She received her PhD in microbiology and immunobiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Mokry currently works on HCMV replication and its modulation of cellular metabolism in the lab of Dr. John Purdy, associate professor of immunobiology and member of the BIO5 Institute. Better understanding those cellular metabolism interactions helps guide the development of novel antiviral therapies.

 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

ARB: Let’s start off with rapid-fire questions. First, fruit or vegetables? 

I probably should say vegetable, but I'm going to go with fruit! 

 

ARB: And would you rather travel to the past or future? 

You know what, I want to be exactly where I am right now. 
 

ARB: I like it! Thank you. What was it that brought you to the BIO5 Institute? 

I was really excited about the research going on here. And in particular, I was excited about Dr. John Purdy’s research. He’s my mentor while I'm doing my postdoc here at the BIO5 Institute and is focused on lipidomics and metabolomics. That is research focused on identifying different nutrients within the body, and then identifying how many of them there might be. That was exactly the kind of training I wanted to acquire during my postdoc. It was a perfect match! The University of Arizona is absolutely wonderful and very collaborative. 

 

ARB: That is awesome. You found him or did he find you? 

It fell into my lap a little serendipitously. I happened to see Dr. Purdy give a talk at a scientific conference as I was ending my dissertation work. He was looking for postdocs, and as I was almost at the end of my graduate work, I thought I better reach out to find out more.  

 

ARB: That's a great example of the accessibility of our researchers. It’s not a rare thing here at the BIO5 Institute! 

That's something I noticed here at the University of Arizona. Everyone is very approachable. You can go and talk to somebody about their research and ask them if they can help you with your research. Everyone is so open, and I appreciate that. It’s something you really need as a scientist; you need to be able to collaborate and talk to make your science better.  

 

ARB: You initially received an undergraduate degree in criminal justice. What made you decide you'd rather do science? 

I love this question. I do get it a lot, because it's such an unusual pairing.  

I have a dual degree from my undergrad, that is criminal justice and molecular biology. As it happened, I started my undergrad a little bit later than most people and thought I wanted to do criminal justice. I was set on that and so glad I did pursue it because it gave me a great understanding of the social sciences. It has helped me because life sciences, like molecular biology, touch social science. Especially when we think about improving diversity and culture and plugging that leaky pipeline that's in research.  

My social science background has helped me understand some of these discrepancies and why they're happening.  

 

ARB: That makes sense to me. They’re both part of the process.  

What made Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) become a focus of your research? 

I hadn't intended to become a virologist. In fact, I didn’t want to be a microbiologist or study viruses since I didn’t know anything about them as an undergraduate. I thought it would be a bad idea for my graduate work. But I happened to rotate in a lab where they were studying human cytomegalovirus, or HCMV. I loved the research, and my mentor was amazing, Dr. Scott Terhune at the Medical College of Wisconsin. I thought, this is the best fit for me.  

Initially, it was that the research is interesting, and I liked my mentor in this lab. And you know, that's what got me rolling. But as I began to get deeper into the literature and the research, I started to recognize what a terrible pathogen HCMV can be. What really drew me to continue to focus on HCMV was its connection to congenital birth disabilities. There are many foundations, like the National CMV Foundation and an organization here in Arizona, Stop CMV AZ. You go on these websites and see these wonderful children affected by CMV. While they’re still thriving, it has impacted both the children and their families. And that's what keeps me in this research project. I'm a basic science researcher, but I hope that my work will help clinical and translational research. 

 

ARB: Of course. What is the greatest impact you hope to make with your research? 

Along with hoping that my basic science can make an impact, I hope other people can build off my work for greater studies. I am also passionate about mentoring the next generation of students, and I love to go to high schools and be a science fair judge.  

I am excited about ushering in this next generation of scientists and providing a better culture overall for them. It’s twofold with impact in that I hope my research has an impact, but I also hope I have an impact with training scientists. 

 

ARB: Mentorship is so important. And here at the BIO5 Institute, I find we do much of it in different ways. 

Absolutely. In ways you wouldn't even think would be normal mentoring. You can have so many different mentors that are important, from the research to the more personal side. 

 

ARB: Speaking of mentors, do you have a mentor that impacted you? 

I've had a lot of mentors and all of them have impacted me in some way. I'm appreciative of them all.  

There was Dr. Tracy Lee at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, she was my undergraduate mentor. During my graduate work, Dr. Scott Terhune at the Medical College of Wisconsin and members of my committee, Dr. Vera Tarakanova, Dr. Neil Hogg, and Dr. Michele Battle. Now here at the University of Arizona, it is Dr. Felicia Goodrum and Dr. John Purdy.  

Of all the mentors that impacted my life the most, I have to say my parents. It may sound a bit cliche, but it's true. They are resilient and perseverant, and taught me everything I need to know while keeping my integrity. They are my biggest mentors. 

 

ARB: I’m sure your parents are very proud of you! 

You're a member of the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship this year. Can you talk a little bit about how you heard about the fellowship and what project you are working on as part of the fellowship? 
 

I heard about the fellowship through a previous awardee, Dr. Rob Jackson. He informed me of it and was kind enough to walk me through the process. I was so excited when I was awarded, and grateful to the BIO5 Institute for not just reading my application but believing in my research. A big thank you! 

I feel like my research was impacted in a big way from the fellowship. Being awarded gave me the confidence to write other grants and expand on some of my ideas. That somebody believing in me pumped me up to start writing more.  

Then there’s support for the research I’m working on. In Dr. John Purdy’s lab, we are interested in human cytomegalovirus and its interactions with host metabolism. When we're talking about the host, we're talking about humans, whose bodies have a certain metabolism associated with different tissues. We're seeking to understand how the virus hijacks some of these processes in order to replicate itself. My research focuses on how HCMV can acquire nutrients and then in terms of replication, what it is building with these nutrients.  

Previous literature has shown how HCMV modulates different nutrients within the body. I’ll use a food analogy. If you're baking a cake, and you have all the ingredients in your kitchen to bake that cake, you will make a fantastic cake. In a similar manner, this is exactly how we model HCMV infection in cell culture. We give the virus all of the nutrients and the metabolites that it needs to replicate itself to an optimal level.  

What I’m most interested in understanding is: what happens when we remove one of those ingredients? Or what if we limit one of those ingredients? If we're taking the cake analogy, let’s say we don’t have salt. The cake probably won’t taste as good. So, removing something or limiting a nutrient during HCMV replication, how will that impact virus replication?  

The BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship is helping me through this by allowing me to purchase supplies, network at conferences, and communicate my research to other scientists and the public.  
 

ARB: That’s great. I know that the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship also provides a community. Do you find there are resources and a sense of community this year? 

Yes. As I mentioned, the previous awardee told me about the fellowship, connecting with him was really important and now we’ve talked about grant opportunities. I’ve also communicated with my fellow postdocs in the fellowship and it’s great having a supportive community as we continue through our journey. 

 

ARB: Shout-out to Michael Johnson for his brainchild there!

You mentioned that you are from Wisconsin, so how do you like Arizona? 

I do like it! I love the University of Arizona and Arizona is stunning. It's beautiful, you can't get enough of those mountains surrounding you on all sides. But it is hot, I’ll say that. Truly, as a Midwest girl, I love the changing seasons. I love having all the seasons in one day, sometimes you get that in Wisconsin, but I certainly am enjoying my time while I'm here.  

 

ARB: And the lack of snow shovels, right? 

That’s a big thing! Not having to purchase a snowblower. 

 

ARB: How long are you hoping to be here? 

As a postdoc studying HCMV, it can last a few years. So, I'll probably be here at least another four. But that works perfectly for me because my daughter just entered high school this year. When she finishes high school, I will finish my postdoc, and then we will see where we both end up! 

 

ARB: Very cool! If you could do it all over again, would you choose the same career path? 

Oh, perfect question because I just picked up my Jurassic Park water bottle. I would be a paleontologist if I could do it all over again. Dinosaur bones are so cool.  

 

ARB: They're very intriguing! Did you know there are dinosaur bones at the University of Arizona Gem and Mineral Museum? I highly recommend it.  
So, when you were in elementary or middle school, what was your science fair project? 

Great question. I was homeschooled for most of my education and didn’t have a typical science fair project. I would say daily, day-to-day activities were my science project, like watching the leaves turn in real time, or watching winter turn to spring as the flowers bloom. And that was my exposure to science, right? Watching the world with curiosity. Baking with my mom and cooking with my parents, that was the beginning of my science experience. 

 

ARB: I think with anyone I talk to who is into science, it's that natural curiosity that starts it.  Thank you so much for joining us, it was a pleasure talking to you. And thank you for being a part of the BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowship! 

Thank you so much for having me, I'm just so grateful. 

Building Bridges, Building Communities: Dr. Melanie Hingle

Dr. Melanie Hingle
UArizona CALES

The University of Arizona Office of Research, Innovation & Impact has named Dr. Melanie Hingle, professor in the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness (NSW), to its 2023 class of Women of Impact - a cohort of 30 female-identifying faculty and staff whose leadership and unique skills advance the university’s mission, vision, and purpose as a world-class institution.