Student Storyteller: Learning goes viral Down Under

On July 6, 2012, I left my home in small town Pensacola, Fla., and headed to Melbourne, Australia. With a carry-on bag full of journal articles on influenza that felt as weighty as my 20 kilo luggage allowance, I was en route to the lab of Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty to work on T-cell immunity with the hope of informing the design of a universal vaccine strategy against influenza.

Influenza is an acute respiratory disease that results in profound morbidity and mortality. In recent years, influenza has garnered much attention because of the global spread of the novel influenza A (H1N1) virus in 2009, proclaimed by the World Health Organization a pandemic.

Currently, our best tools against influenza A are antibody-based vaccines that target the hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) surface glycoproteins of the virus. Antigenic changes and adaptations within HA and NA mandate, however, the costly production of a new vaccine yearly and render current vaccines completely ineffective in the face of novel pandemic strains, such as H1N1. Therefore, there is great need for a universal vaccine that would be effective on all strains of influenza.

To inform the design of a universal vaccine strategy, I worked with members of the Doherty lab for an action-packed six weeks. The people I met, conversations I had and experiences I lived redefined the way I think about science and medicine. The lab, a unique international mélange, showed me the breadth of the worldwide scientific community working together toward one end. Researchers included a graduate student from Mexico, a postdoc from China, a postdoc from Malaysia, a PhD from Russia, an undergraduate from Scotland, and me—an undergrad from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. On a regular basis, we were in contact with labs in Germany, the Netherlands, and even St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

I left Australia, however, with more than a long list of new technical skills and bragging rights to having spent my birthday enjoying Australian biscuits and chocolate cake with one of the most influential immunologists of the 20th century. I returned with a greater sense of the significance of my work and more of a “big picture” understanding that transcends cultural boundaries and mitigates the scientific antagonism that can stem from the fight for grant money and the race for the consummate success in the scientific world—publication in peer reviewed journals.

Before I conducted research in the Doherty lab, I evaluated disease by the algorithm taught in virtually all textbooks—the pathogen’s virulence, biochemical mechanism, its natural reservoir, etc. Now, however, I see disease as a great equalizer that breaches the walls of race, gender, culture and socio-economic status, revealing humanity’s most visceral common thread—our biology.

Lauren Edgar is a junior biology and chemistry double major with a concentration in biochemistry. Her research work in Australia was made possible through the Richter Scholars Program. The program supports independent study scholarships for undergraduate students. Richter Scholarships are competitively awarded for students proposing an independent study project requiring travel away from Winston-Salem, N.C. International projects are especially encouraged.

Categories: International, Student, Top Stories, Wake Forest College