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Lab Rotations Offer Students Unique Opportunities to Lead Projects and Work Collaboratively with Faculty

Jaime So and Monica Mugnier in the Mugnier Lab in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology

ScM student Jaime So is leading a new direction of research for the Mugnier Lab with the Emergent BioSolutions Fellowship. 

"I want people to become confident, competent scientists and thinkers, because these are skills that are useful outside of science—they are skills that are useful in life." Monica Mugnier, PhD

Many master’s students come to the Bloomberg School with hopes of working closely with faculty to gain hands-on experience before applying to doctoral programs. Jaime So, a second-year ScM student in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, has not only found this kind of coefficient partnership with assistant professor Monica Mugnier, she’s landed an opportunity to lead her own project in the lab.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of California Santa Barbara, So was looking to gain more experience—both in the lab and in the classroom—before applying to PhD programs. That’s when she found the master of science program in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology.

One year into the program, So received the department’s 2018 Emergent BioSolutions Fellowship, a $5,000 award given to one ScM student each year to pursue a project in a faculty member’s lab. The fellowship recognizes students who are conducting thesis research on a disease of global public health importance. Master’s and PhD students apply every spring by submitting a two-page proposal on the research they’re hoping to pursue and must receive a recommendation from the principal investigator. For So, that research took place in the Mugnier Lab where PI Monica Mugnier, PhD studies African trypanosomes, single-celled parasites that cause diseases in humans and animals in sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s not unusual for Bloomberg School students to work closely with faculty, but in Mugnier’s lab, So has the unique opportunity to lead her own project—developing the protocol, sequencing the genes and more—which will lay the groundwork for future research by Mugnier’s team.

So and Mugnier share more about their work, why opportunities for students working in a lab are important, and how So’s current project with Mugnier could lead to breakthrough research.

What’s the focus of the Mugnier Lab?

Monica Mugnier: There’s a human variant of African trypanosomiasis, which causes African Sleeping Sickness, and then an animal variant of the disease, which is a huge problem because it infects livestock. The estimated economic burden of the disease to sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be over $4 billion a year. It’s a huge problem in terms of food security and economic development.

What we’re focused on is the main mechanism of immune evasion in African trypanosomes [which cause the disease]. These parasites are covered in a dense coat of a single protein called variant surface glycoprotein (VSG). They can switch out what the coat looks like, so they’re essentially changing disguises. In their genomes, they have thousands of different options. We’re broadly interested in understanding these wardrobe changes because they allow the parasites to sustain a long-term infection. If the parasite couldn’t do this our immune systems could handle it.

Jaime So and Monica Mugnier in the Mugnier Lab in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology

What I’m looking at with Jaime is T. vivax, a trypanosome that is little bit different in that it seems like its coat might be less densely packed than the others. We think there might be a better chance of development of a vaccine against this parasite. Jaime is sequencing the transcriptomes of T. vivax parasites from infected cattle to better understand their surface coats.

T. vivax is very relevant because, unlike the other African trypanosomes, it can be transmitted by any biting flies. T. vivax is also found in South America with the potential to spread even further.

Jaime, what led you to pursue a lab rotation with Monica in the Mugnier Lab?

Jaime So: I was really interested in immunology, and there aren’t many labs that focus on that. Monica’s research is all about VSGs which are things that these parasites use to totally evade the immune response, and I said, “Wow, that’s sick!” The description about her lab also mentioned learning how to code, and I’ve always thought it was valuable for biologists to know how to do bioinformatics and coding.

What’s this experience been like for you?

JS: I am largely independent and expected to figure things out for myself, which I like. It’s nice having that kind of confidence. What I appreciate most about this lab specifically is how I'm responsible for all of my own work, but am encouraged to always ask questions no matter how simple. I find it valuable that someone is always easy to reach if I need clarification, even if my problem turns out to be because I typed 'G' instead of 'X' on my script.

Our lab is small, and everyone is working on something so different, but they’re an expert at it. We can all still work together even though we have these different projects, and none of us are really dependent on each other. There’s no hierarchy; everyone is on equal footing.

Monica, you have several students working in your lab. Why do you feel it’s important to give students these opportunities?

MM: For me, the value is about the experience of really learning how to think through a problem and solve it. Another thing that’s important is to encourage students to think for themselves in a way that they can learn how to have ideas.

I want people to become confident, competent scientists and thinkers, because these are skills that are useful outside of science—they are skills that are useful in life.

Jaime So and Monica Mugnier in the Mugnier Lab in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology

What’s the most rewarding part about working with students?

MM: What’s most exciting is watching people realize that they can do things that I ask them to do. I’m often saying, “Just figure it out,” and I can see that they’re frustrated and then I see them say, “Oh, I can do it!”

Jaime So, an Emergent BioSolutions fellow, has worked in your lab for almost a year. What’s her role?

MM: Jaime is leading her project. This is a pilot to get an idea of what’s going on in samples we collected by Theresa Manful Gwira’s group at the University of Ghana. They collect blood samples from herds of Cattle in Ghana and then ship us RNA extracted from the blood samples that are infected with T. vivax so we can do sequencing.

Jaime’s job is to process the samples, send them for sequencing and analyze the data.

How does the Emergent BioSolutions fellowship help you, Jaime, and the Mugnier Lab’s research, Monica?

JS: I feel ownership over the project, as opposed to when I was an undergrad. The independence really gives you the confidence to say, “I can really do this, I can figure things out for myself now. I don’t need to have my hand held.”

MM: I wanted Jaime to get this award because I think she needed to know what a good student she was. I think her biggest weakness is not realizing how smart she is.

It’s also nice to have some options. With this extra money, if Jaime has an idea and she wants to try some off-the-wall experiment to test it, we can do that. That’s the kind of experiment that really leads to breakthroughs.

Jaime, what do you hope to accomplish during the next year of working on this project?

JS: It’s mostly about the experience. I don’t know what we’re going to find. It’s fun to sequence things and explore them, but the data sets are massive, and I may not have time to really, really get into it.

How will the findings from Jaime’s research benefit the lab?

MM: It’s a new direction for the lab. We have a foundation of expertise in certain aspects of antigenic variation, and now we’re saying, “Can we apply the things that we’ve done in one type of African trypanosome to another?” It’s going to be really great to have this data set. It’s brand new. No one has done this before.

There’s a lot of potential, but we don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s also fun to talk about.

- Interview by Marisa Russell

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Students come to #JHSPH for many reasons, but Jaime So, a second year master of science student (ScM ’19) from Santa Rosa, California, came to Baltimore to study microbiology and immunology, with a goal of landing a spot in a PhD program after completing her degree. . She was drawn to the field first as an undergraduate at @UCSantaBarbara, where she got her bachelor’s degree in microbiology. “I tried really hard to get involved in different research opportunities,” Jaime says. “I worked in a microbiology lab studying E. coli … [and] I got my name on a paper because of it.” She was drawn to courses in her program like parasitology, where she focuses her work today. . Jaime was interested in the molecular microbiology and immunology department at the Bloomberg School because of the program’s emphasis on practical applications of science and translation. “That was a major draw to this program, specifically,” she says. In the last year, she says that has proven true. “I am largely independent and I’m expected to figure things out for myself, which I like. It’s nice having that kind of confidence.” . Jaime works with assistant professor Monica Mugnier in the @MugnierLab, which studies the parasites that cause Human and Animal African Trypanosomiasis. Jaime was awarded the Emergent Biosolutions Fellowship, to pursue a project with Monica, where she’s looking at the T. Vivax parasite, and sequencing its variant surface glycoproteins coats to understand how to prepare cattle immune systems to be able to fight it off. . After graduating in May, Jaime hopes to apply to PhD programs and continue working in microbiology. “I’m leaning toward doing something with microbiology and focusing in on the pathogens and what they do, because they’re crazy little things.” . When Jaime isn’t studying, or working in the Mugnier Lab, she loves to explore the Inner Harbor and enjoy brunch or desserts at @pitangogelato. #publichealth #highereducation #JohnsHopkinsMMI

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