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Southwestern Student Conducts Research that Contributes to Paper Published in Major Scientific Journal

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    Junior biology major Kelsey Rice spent the summer of 2013 working in the lab of Dr. James Musser at the Houston Methodist Research Institute. The research she conducted contributed to a paper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – one of the country’s most respected scientific journals. At Southwestern, Rice works in the lab of Maria Cuevas, associate professor of biology.

Research was done during an internship at the Houston Methodist Research Institute

A Southwestern University student conducted research that contributed to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – one of the country’s most respected scientific journals.

Junior biology major Kelsey Rice performed research that led to the paper last summer while interning at the Houston Methodist Research Institute (HMRI). Rice worked in the lab of Dr. James Musser, who does research on infectious diseases.

Musser and his team were trying to figure out the sequence of genomic alterations that led to a more virulent strain of the Streptococcus, or “flesh-eating” bacteria, which is estimated to cause 600 million infections globally each year and 10,000 to 15,000 severe infections in the United States.

Researchers noticed a rise in severe infections caused by Streptococcus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but were not sure how the more virulent strain emerged. Rice helped the team analyze the genomes of more than 3,600 samples of Streptococcus that were collected from a variety of locations in Europe and North America between the 1920s and 2013.

As a result of this research, Musser and his team were able to pinpoint the date of the mutation to sometime in 1983. Their work should help researchers predict the emergence of bacteria-related epidemics in the future and formulate better public health responses.

Their paper, titled “Evolutionary pathway to increased virulence and epidemic group A Streptococcus disease derived from 3,615 genome sequences,” was published online April 14 and has attracted considerable national attention in the lay press.

Dr. Timothy Boone, a 1977 Southwestern graduate who is now co-director of the Institute for Academic Medicine at Houston Methodist and a senior member of HMRI, said it is very rare to see an undergraduate science student listed on a manuscript that is published in the Proceedings.

“I was very excited and honored they included me on the paper,” Rice said. “As an undergraduate student, I did not expect to contribute to an article published in such a distinguished journal. I was part of a great research team that provided me knowledge and support along the way.”

Rice’s mentor at HMRI was Dr. Waleed Nasser, who she said helped teach her the techniques they used to do the research, such as DNA extraction and sequencing.

“I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to work in Dr. Musser’s lab,” Rice said. “It was a great experience and I learned so much about working in a large research lab. Also, the research I conducted was extremely interesting and rewarding.”

Rice has been working in the lab of Maria Cuevas, associate professor of biology at Southwestern, since she was a sophomore. Cuevas is studying the tight junction proteins Claudin-4 and occludin in endometrial cancer cell lines. 

Rice said she applied for the internship at HMRI last summer because it seemed like a great program. “I would have never even considered applying to a summer research program had I not participated in research at Southwestern during the school year,” she said. “Working with Dr. Cuevas, I became comfortable in a laboratory setting, which gave me the confidence to participate in research over the summer.”

This summer, Rice will continue her research with Cuevas as a participant in the SCOPE program, which is funded by Southwestern and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.