SMB People

SMB People


  • Fellowship Helps Fund a Love of Pathogens


    Story by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ’04

    Konkel lab

    Nick Negretti (left) and Dr. Mike Konkel

    In a light-filled laboratory, Nick Negretti grows bacteria.

    “I love pathogens,” says Negretti, who is a graduate student in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences. “They are so interesting. In each of us, there are more bacterial cells than human cells,” he says. “And while most bacteria are helpful, there are a few that make us sick.”

    Negretti works in the lab of WSU professor Mike Konkel, a leading expert on the food-borne pathogen Campylobacter jejuni. Often found in the intestines of chickens, C. jejuni is the most common bacterial cause of human food poisoning in the world. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that can sometimes result in death. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control estimate 1.3 million people are infected each year. By understanding how bacteria make people ill, Konkel and Negretti’s work could help develop new therapies for disease prevention.

    But like most university labs, Konkel depends on grant money to fund ongoing, long-term research. When he learned there would be a gap in funding because of timing between grants, his lab was able to continue research without interruption because of funds from the Charles and Audrey Drake Fellowship*.

    “The funds from the Drake Fellowship really helped,” says Konkel. “This type of bridge funding is critical because preliminary research is necessary to apply for grant money.” Konkel and his team are now funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

    For Negretti, who began his undergraduate studies in the STARS program, it meant that he could continue his research and stay on track to graduate in 2019. STARS, which stands for Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies, gives exceptional undergraduate students the opportunity to begin doing research their first year and finish their doctorate in as few as seven years.

    “Coming to college I knew I wanted to do research, and the STARS program is a good way to get involved in research right from the beginning,” he says.

    Negretti came to WSU in August 2011 right out of high school, and had applied to the STARS program. “I didn’t get in my first semester,” he says. Undaunted, he applied again, was accepted, and went on to finish his bachelors of science in just three years. Now a graduate student, he has worked in Konkel’s lab almost from the beginning. “The best way to learn is to jump in feet first,” he says.

    In August 2016, Negretti and Konkel will visit the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Virginia where they will use one-of-a-kind, high-definition microscopes to understand better how C. jejuni bacteria bind to the host cells in the intestine.

    Host cells change their behavior because of the bacteria, says Negretti, and the only way to understand the tools bacteria use to get a cell to do something it wouldn’t normally do is with a high-definition microscope.

    “Nick is addressing questions that can only be answered using a highly specialized microscope,” says Konkel. “We are lucky to go to the Advanced Imaging Center at Janelia.”

    Negretti is hoping to learn more about how bacteria bind to the host cells in the intestine and how that interaction changes both the host cell and the bacterial cell. “It will give us a better idea how it [bacteria] manipulates the cell,” he says. “This is a very valuable piece of information.” That information will lead to new questions and answers. “Letting the science happen,” he says.

    After he graduates, Negretti wants a post-doctoral research position. After that, “I will see where life is,” he says. And where life and science take him.

    Charles H Drake
    *Funds from the Charles and Audrey Drake Fellowship in Honor of Dr. A.T. Henrici are awarded to promising researchers in microbial ecology. Charles Drake was a professor of Bacteriology and Public Health at WSU from 1944-1981 and studied under Dr. A.T. Henrici at the University of Minnesota.



  • Floricel Gonzalez - Scholarship Helps Make Dreams a Reality


    Story by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ’04


    Floricel Gonzalez - Gifts in Action

    Floricel Gonzalez

    In the spring of 2015, Floricel Gonzalez (’16 BS) was attending the School of Molecular Biosciences scholarship awards ceremony holding a letter in her hand. She knew she’d received a scholarship, but didn’t yet know which one. Carefully opening the letter, she read the name: The Elizabeth R. Hall Endowment Scholarship*.

    “My jaw dropped,” says Gonzalez. The prestigious award, given to promising students in medical microbiology, is $4,000. “It was a breath of fresh air that I don’t have to worry about tuition or books for my last year.”

    Gonzalez, the daughter of migrant farm workers, grew up in Selah, Washington. Her parents immigrated in 1999 from Zacatecas, Mexico to the Yakima Valley in Washington State when Gonzalez was 4 years old. They worked hard, so that she and her five brothers and sisters could have more career opportunities.

    “My parents’ dream of a better future instilled in me a passion for higher education,” says Gonzalez. “I did not know how I was going to fund my education, but thanks to various scholarships, such as this one, I have been able to make my dreams a reality.”

    When she first came to Pullman on a college visit, Gonzalez says “I fell in love with the atmosphere of WSU.” At the time, her plan was to become a veterinarian, so WSU also lined up nicely with her career and academic goals. But then things took an unexpected turn.

    “I got involved in research and that changed everything,” says Gonzalez. “I couldn’t imagine not working in a lab.”

    It is an honor to have her name associated with mine.” Floricel Gonzalez (’16 BS), who received the prestigious Elizabeth R. Hall Endowment Scholarship.

    She also found many mentors who encouraged her along the way, including Bill Davis, associate dean of undergraduate education in the School of Molecular Biosciences and her academic advisor. Dr. Davis suggested she apply for a 10-week summer research program with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

    “I didn’t think I was good enough or would be able to compete,” she says. Then Davis gave her a few encouraging words. “He thought I was more than qualified.” She was accepted to the program and spent the summer of 2015 working in an infectious disease laboratory at Yale University where she studied a protein in the salivary glands of a mosquito that may contain an immunity property that could be used in future malaria vaccines.

    Gonzalez, who is double majoring in microbiology and English, decided to continue with English as a major because solid writing skills are important for publishing research articles and applying for grants. The major, she believes, gives her an advantage over other science students in communicating science. She will graduate in 2016 and is already applying to doctoral programs. Her goal is to work as a research scientist at a university or health organization, such as the National Institutes of Health.

    “I really love viruses,” she says. But Gonzalez is not limiting her options; she says she is also interested in bacterial pathogens. Ultimately, she wants to do work that will translate into human medicine and better human health. “My goal is to work at a public health research facility or academic institution, where I will use my findings to combat disease.”

    After receiving the scholarship, she learned more about Elizabeth Hall’s career and her time at WSU, which made a big impact on Gonzalez. “I am honored to uphold her legacy and providing a positive perspective on what she’s left at WSU,” says Gonzalez. “It is an honor to have her name associated with mine.”

     

    Elizabeth Hall
    *Elizabeth Hall’s (1914-2001) many friends, colleagues, and former students established the Elizabeth R. Hall Endowment Scholarship in 1972 as a memorial to her. A member of the WSU faculty from 1944 to 1976, she was a researcher, instructor, and beloved mentor in bacteriology and public health for 32 years.