Microbiology junior Christina Moody had already accomplished a lot. She was a Ford Scholar, a recipient of the OSU Diversity Achievement Scholarship and a winner of the Fred and Mary Brauti Pre-Medical Scholarship in the College of Science. She traveled to Honduras last year as a team member of Global Medical Brigades to experience health care practice in a rural community. Currently, she fills her free time fundraising and doing STEM outreach for Sigma Delta Omega, OSU's science sorority. Christina is also an avid volunteer for OSU STEM Academy, devoting time and energy mentoring middle school girls and advocating for women in science.
But then she became part of an amazing research discovery which raised her credibility as a young scientist to even greater heights and has inspired her to pursue research on microbial agents of human disease.
Christina is a member of microbiology professor Bruce Geller's research team, which recently captured the world's attention with its construction of a powerful molecule that can inhibit deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria responsible for tens of thousands of fatalities across the globe. She replicated in-vitro experiments (tests conducted in a petri-dish) that confirmed the molecule's ability to restore the bacteria's susceptibility to the antibiotic meropenum.
The team of Oregon State scientists, which included microbiology postdoctoral scholars Erin Sully and Lixin Li, showed that a new PPMO (peptide-conjugated phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomer) disables a recently developed and deadly enzyme that had made bacteria resistant to mainstream antibiotics. The team tested the new PPMO both in-vitro and in mice infected with antibiotic-resistant E.coli, and showed that the penicillin meropenem in combination with PPMO was effective in treating the infection.
Christina received invaluable guidance from Sully, who originally conducted a set of in-vitro experiments testing the PPMO on different genera of bacteria. "Erin pretty much taught me everything. She allowed me the opportunity to help replicate the experiments which I am very grateful for," said Moody.
Christina was a co-author on the research published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, a rare feat for an undergraduate student. Geller and his team will be moving forward with further research to make their discovery ready for clinical trials in three years.
She is thrilled by the impact of the research.
“It makes me happy and gives me a sense of fulfillment that I got to be a part of something as big as this.”
Given that antibiotic-resistant superbugs have evolved to become nearly indestructible unleashing a global health crisis, the positive news from the Geller Lab has generated much excitement and was widely covered in media. Christina says the ramifications of her research dawned on her gradually. At first, she was very focused on the step-by-step process of experimentation and the research objectives.
"I wasn't understanding the molecular aspect or the impact of the overall research until I started learning more microbiology. Bruce would really explain to me what was going on at the molecular level while I was conducting the experiments. I learned a lot and it helped me in my classes too."
Christina started working in Geller's Lab as a sophomore and contributed research that would result in a publication within her first five months in the lab.
Before coming to OSU, Christina led a life quite far from science and research. She grew up in a working class family in tiny Sutherlin in western Oregon, where her mother works at a call center in Umpqua Bank and her father has a job at Lowes. She had virtually no exposure to science in middle school and remembers taking her first science classes in high school. "I actually never took physics in school," said Christina.
She didn't always know if she could afford a university education. Scholarships made it possible for her to come to OSU and she hasn't looked back.
“Coming from such a small place, even going to university seemed extraordinary,” said Christina, whose high school classmates generally went on to attend community college. “Research seemed an impossible dream. But here I am pursuing my dream."
Never one to back away from a challenge, Christina was attracted to science precisely because it appeared more difficult than other subjects. After a grueling physics class last year—her most difficult science class yet—most non-physics majors would be happy to close that chapter of their lives, but she did the exact opposite. Christina signed up for yet another semester of the same course—this time as a Physics Learning Assistant.
"The class was so hard for me, but I persevered and kept going. I felt I gained a lot of experience from that, and thought I could help other students who are similarly struggling. This way I would also gain better understanding of physics; you learn what had gone wrong before."
Given her determination and fierce desire to learn and help others learn, it is no wonder Christina is succeeding so well as a science student.
She credits her sorority sisters for her early start in research at OSU. "The girls kept saying I should start research as soon as I can if I was serious about science." Christina got her opportunity when she interviewed Geller as part of an introductory microbiology class. A class assignment required students to ask professors questions about their work to get them interested in research.
"It went really well, and we talked for an hour and a half! I asked if he could mentor me and he said, 'Yes.'"
Christina says she keeps talking with Geller, brainstorming ideas and working through problems throughout a research project. Currently, she is working on a project on creating a resistance gene in a strain of bacteria and study how it is affected by coming in contact with PPMO.
Given her extensive research experience, Christina has amassed impressive skills in addition to getting a taste of cutting-edge research and life as a scientist. She reels off the names of the many molecular biology techniques that she has learned: PCR (Polymerase chain reaction), gene isolation, electroporation, and DNA cloning.
Experiential learning through research helps students develop a wide range of practical skills that prepare them for careers as well as for graduate school. According to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, students with an undergraduate research experience report greater opportunities for professional advancement as well as valuable personal development that includes greater self-confidence, collaborative and team work skills and independence of thought and work.
Christina is emphatic about the value of her research experience.
"Research definitely changed my outlook on things. I feel a lot more skilled in the lab. I feel I am good at science and it is nice to feel good at something."