Written by Michael Rouleau
Two Eastern biology students were among six undergraduate students from universities across Connecticut to receive fellowships from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium this summer. Lauren Atkinson ’17 used the fellowship to assist in her pursuit of discovering new antibiotics. Lillian Hyde ’17 used hers to research a cell found in the central nervous system known as microglia.
Lauren Atkinson ’17 and her research mentor Professor Barbara Murdoch
Atkinson’s research is titled “Evaluating the Scorpion Microbiome for Diversity and Antibiotic Production.” Alongside her research mentor Biology Professor Barbara Murdoch, Atkinson researched the scorpion abdominal microbiome in pursuit of finding new antibiotics to address the rising threat of antimicrobial resistance. A microbiome is the collection of microbes or microorganisms that inhabit an environment — in this case, the abdomen of a scorpion — and antimicrobial resistance is the ability of a microbe to resist drugs (like antibiotics) that had previously been useful in treating them.
“The United Nations has declared antimicrobial resistance a fundamental global threat to human life, food production, economic development and security,” said Atkinson. “One step in responding to this threat is to develop new drugs that microbes have not developed resistance to.”
Scorpions are routinely exposed to potentially deadly microbes since many of their prey are vectors for deadly pathogens. “We are testing bacteria naturally found in the abdomens of scorpions for their ability to produce antibiotics,” said Atkinson. “We hypothesize that scorpions have formed symbiotic relationships with bacteria that produce antibiotics that protect the scorpions from these pathogens.”
Lillian Hyde ’17
Hyde’s research is titled “Assessment of Microglia Function in Brain and Blood Microenvironments.” She reports: “My experiment focuses on microglia, a cell found in the central nervous system that has been shown to change between an anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory state. These cells are normally grown in fetal bovine serum, however in the body they are isolated in a cerebrospinal fluid-like environment, the fluid that coats the brain and the spinal cord.”
The purpose of the study is to test if the microglia have different states in cerebrospinal fluid (fluid closest to their native environment) compared to fetal bovine serum (their standard culture media).
“A main component of the study is cell culture,” said Hyde, who worked with Biology Professor Kurt Lucin during the fellowship. “I am responsible for maintaining the cell culture and conducting various experiments. My experiment is testing how the cells react to growing in different culture environments and assessing their different states based on their appearance, chemicals that they secrete, and how they respond to foreign substances.”
Relating the experiment to space travel, the NASA CTSGC writes: “By establishing a baseline for microglia function in their native environment, space travel conditions can eventually be tested to assess their effects on the central nervous system.”
NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium is a federally mandated grant, internship and scholarship program that is funded as a part of NASA Education. There are Space Grant Consortia in all 50 states, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Eligible full-time undergraduate/graduate students of a consortium university/college may apply for the fellowship program, in which students are expected to work on research related to space/aerospace science or engineering under the guidance of a faculty member or a mentor from industry.