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The Lure of Lab Science

Robert Lyle McPherson PhD student Lyle McPherson in Leung's lab, where curiosity leads to discovery.

Five years ago, Lyle McPherson was a pre-med undergrad when he peered through a microscope at a cluster of fruit fly neural stem cells—a glimpse of another world at the molecular level. It wasn’t long before he began to reconsider med school, ultimately shifting his focus to a research track.

Now, as a PhD student in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, he is part of a team whose discovery of a key infection mechanism in the chikungunya virus could play a role in preventing and treating the debilitating disease.

The researchers identified the function of a protein vital to the virus’s ability to replicate itself within a host. The study was published in PNAS in January.

The implications of the findings are potentially vast, says BMB assistant professor Anthony Leung, PhD. Mosquito-borne chikungunya, which is rarely fatal but can cause severe joint pain and neurological complications, shares a profile with other related viruses, he says.

“Our findings not only reveal a fundamental mechanism of virulence caused by viruses that cause human diseases,” says Leung, “but also open new avenues for developing antiviral drugs or vaccines for chikungunya or other viruses,” including those that cause SARS, MERS and Mayaro.

McPherson says it did not occur to him that the team’s investigation into the chikungunya virus would yield information that may help to thwart its infection abilities.

“The thing about basic science is that you don’t know the problems you’re going to end up solving and that’s part of the drive to keep doing it,” he explains. “ … discoveries about a virus can stem from curiosity about a protein.

McPherson says that he can't imagine a better place to do "high-impact science."

“As a graduate student, between the quality of research you’re going to be doing in your own lab to the collaborations that are available to you—I don’t think there are too many places like that," he says, surrounded by carefully marked beakers and a rainbow of Post-it notes in Leung’s lab.

In fact, the School’s collaborative culture played a role in the chikungunya discovery.

“The … research with [Professor] Diane Griffin's lab in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology is able to take advantage of the powerful synergy between the frontier of molecular biology and emerging infectious diseases,” Leung observes.

Moving forward, McPherson will be doing more molecular digging to advance the chikungunya findings.

“The best science is like playing ping pong,” Leung says. “As a mentor, I really enjoy working with students like Lyle who can bounce back and forth with thoughtful ideas while doing a great job of execution on bench.”

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- Lindsay Smith Rogers