A Force for Innovation—Novel Approaches to a Public Health Crisis
Opportunities for undergraduate research were a key factor in Claire Johnson’s decision to come to George Mason University. Even before she started her freshman year, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina native knew she wanted to work in Dr. Robin Couch’s biochemistry lab.
Claire is now a senior majoring in chemistry (with a biochemistry concentration and a minor in bioinformatics), and she has put in many hours in the Couch Lab as she seeks to better understand the development of novel antibiotics.
“Antibiotic development is essential due to the natural and engineered development of antibiotic resistance, which is a major worldwide health threat,” Claire notes. “According to the 2014 Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, by 2050, there will be over 300,000 deaths each year that are attributable to antibiotic resistance in North America alone. In Asia, this number is well over four million deaths.”
As part of the Couch Lab’s work in antibiotic resistance, Claire has been working with a set of rationally designed inhibitors, which she uses to reduce the activity of a specific enzyme in a variety of bacteria. If an inhibitor works against multiple different bacteria, it could possibly be developed into an effective and novel antibiotic. Of the six inhibitors Claire has tested so far, one proved particularly potent as a broad spectrum inhibitor (effective against multiple bacteria), while two others showed promise as more directed inhibitors for specific bacteria.
Claire began her this project in the fall of her junior year as an independent study for course credit, and she’ll continue to get course credit for her research throughout her senior year. Over the summer, her work was directly funded by Mason’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. Additionally, all work in the Couch Lab, including Claire’s, is supported by the National Institutes of Health.
Throughout this project, Claire has received mentoring and guidance from a variety of sources. She’s collaborated with scientists and labs at George Washington University as well as the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and she’s been helped by faculty and staff from Mason’s Office of Study Scholarship, Creative Activities, & Research (OSCAR). Claire has worked directly with Dr. Couch, and Amanda Haymond, a PhD student in the Couch Lab. The two have much in common: Amanda is an alumnus of the Honors College and, like Claire, she came to Mason as a University Scholar.