Laura Dickson, a UC Davis 2008 alumna and a Fulbright Grant recipient, is going to Kenya in August to study the possible correlation of infection of the AIDS virus with the spread of malaria.
Dickson, who graduated this month from UC Davis with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology and a minor in global and international studies, will spend 10 months in the town of Kisimu in Western Kenya, located near Lake Victoria.
“I will be [reading blood slides] to see if the co-infection of HIV and malaria helps spread malaria,” Dickson said.
She will count gametocytemia, the stage in the life cycle of the malaria parasite that passes the disease from person to person, in the samples of those infected.
“I expect to see that people who are co-infected are more able to spread malaria to those around them,” Dickson said. “If you know there’s a correlation, you can do something to stop it or prevent it, but first you have to know that there is a correlation.”
Dickson said if this disease relationship is confirmed, impacted families will be more likely to engage in preventative measures to avoid malaria, such as using mosquito nets.
Dickson is no stranger to Africa; she worked in Ghana in 2006, helping HIV patients.
“That experience really made me want to do something with HIV and Africa,” she said.
Dickson’s work in Kenya will be a continuation of the research she has been conducting in the lab of Shirley Luckhart, an associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology at UC Davis. She started working in Luckhart’s lab one year ago, where her research included biochemical work on mosquito aging.
Recently, Luckhart had been collaborating with another UC Davis faculty member to develop research on co-infection of AIDS and malaria, which Luckhart said is a major health problem in sub-Saharan Africa.
“When Laura shared with me that she was interested in working in Africa during the time between finishing her B.S. and starting graduate work, I realized that there was a great opportunity to jumpstart our field-based efforts in Kenya with someone who I was confident could really do great work,” said Luckhart in an e-mail interview.
Dickson’s $26,000 Fulbright Grant will cover airfare, living expenses and a small allowance for research.
Dickson said approximately 70 people were selected for a Fulbright Grant for research in sub-Saharan African out of over 500 applicants.
“It’s really competitive,” she said.
Although she is looking forward to going to Africa, as the trip looms closer Dickson said her emotions go back and forth.
“I’ll get really excited, then get really nervous,” she said.
Allegations that Kenya’s recent presidential election was fixed led to political, economic and humanitarian upheaval.
“[The situation] has calmed down, but Kisimu is one of the most volatile areas in Kenya right now,” Dickson said.
Dickson will travel to Africa alone, although she said one other Fulbright Grant recipient will be stationed near her.
While in Kenya, Dickson said she also hopes to teach science at the local high schools, as well as volunteer with the African Medical and Research Foundation.
Dickson, who also worked in the lab of professor emeritus John Hershey for two years, credits undergraduate research opportunities at UC Davis as a major factor in receiving the Fulbright Grant.
“The emphasis on undergraduate research and the ability for me to conduct research at UC Davis was invaluable,” Dickson said.
“I know UC Davis prides itself on [undergraduate research]; it was an amazing opportunity,” she said.
Hershey said he thinks individual research projects are extremely useful for undergraduates.
“[Undergraduates] are thrown into a situation that they are not yet prepared for, haven’t taken all the courses – they are similar to projects a grad student would get, so they are tremendously challenged,” he said.
“I think Laura is totally deserving of the award, and I think she’ll really thrive in Africa. It’s a pretty challenging thing she is going to do there, and she’s willing to take it on,” Hershey said.
Undergraduates interested in research can check out their departments’ webpage and learn about faculty research projects that they may want to apply for, Hershey said.
“If they find something that is interesting, they should e-mail the person [conducting the research],” he said. “In my own lab, I’ve always had one, two, sometimes three undergraduates.”
Other research project
In addition to her work with Luckhart, Dickson is conducting her own undergraduate research project in Hershey’s lab, which studies protein synthesis – how cells make proteins.
Hershey’s lab is interested in the mechanisms of these processes and how protein synthesis is regulated, he said.
“We have specialized in proteins that get the whole process started, called the initiation phase on protein synthesis,” Hershey said.
Dickson’s research focuses on the protein eIF4B, or eukaryotic Initiation Factor 4B, and its interaction with protein complex eIF3.
Hershey said that scientists know that the eIF4B protein is modified in cells.
“When you modify the protein, you modify its surface characteristics,” he said. “Laura is asking – does the modification influence the binding of eIF4B to eIF3?”
To answer this, Dickson takes the eIF4B gene and mutates it to change the gene structure so that protein modification cannot occur. In another mutant form, Dickson mimics the modification by changing the electrical properties of the protein. This enables her to make it look as if it were modified even if it wasn’t, Hershey said.
Dickson then looks at the two forms to see if there’s a difference regarding it’s binding to eIF3.
If a difference is found, she will conclude that the cell regulates the binding of eIF4B to eIF3 through the modification reaction, Hershey said.
“Such regulation of the eIF4B-eIF3 interaction may affect the rate of protein synthesis in the cell, which is known to be important in numerous disease states such as cancer,” he said.
“She’s very close in getting the answer, she’ll do that this summer before she leaves,” Hershey said.
ANNA OPALKA can be reached at email@example.com