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For the Love of Bacteria

News Story

Biology student Raheem Lawrence ’15 studies bacteria and tuberculosis as part of his prestigious 2014 American Society for Microbiology Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Three years ago, when Raheem Lawrence ’15 left his hometown in Jamaica and took his seat in his first class at Pace, he didn’t know it would set the tone for the rest of his time at the University. Biology Professor Marcy Kelly, PhD, stood at the front of the room with Lawrence’s full attention. “You could see instantly, firsthand, that she loved bacteria,” he says.

Yes, bacteria.

Fast forward three years to the present, where the biology student has just received a competitive and prestigious American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Undergraduate Research Fellowship grant, allowing him and Kelly to collaborate on research involving—you guessed it—bacteria.

“Bacteria is the simplest living form of organism, but they’re so resilient,” says Lawrence. “They constantly find ways to evade human attempt to stop them through antimicrobials—they constantly evolve and change, and we can never have the upper hand with them. Basically, they’re kind of like the perfect organisms, even though they’re the simplest.”

Lawrence originally came to Pace in pursuit of becoming a doctor, something he says isn’t as easily attainable in Jamaica. Given the opportunity to participate in the ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship, he is one step closer to achieving his goal.

With Kelly as his mentor, Lawrence’s research will focus on utilizing Glutathione, a thiol-based molecule that has been identified as an anti-mycobacterial agent to Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb), to help fight tuberculosis. Out of 101 applicants for the fellowship, he is one of the 48 accepted for funding. Lawrence will present his findings at the ASM General Meeting in the spring of 2015.

He was notified of his fellowship after returning from the 2014 ASM General Meeting held in Boston in May. “I was really surprised and excited. Coming from this conference and finding out that I got a grant that allows me to go back the next year to present my work was a big deal for me. I was really happy I got that opportunity,” he says.

In addition to the fellowship, Lawrence and Kelly are collaborating on a project as part of the Undergraduate Student-Faculty Research program at Pace that contributes to their work for the ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship. The two will try to identify novel genes involved in the anti-mycobacterial response to glutathione, which will in turn help the scientific community understand the intricacies of the interaction between the organism and the human immune response. Ultimately, the results from their work will aid in the development of new vaccinations to prevent tuberculosis.

But for Lawrence, who juggles tutoring, being a lab technician, a peer leader, and the president of both the Health Pre-Professional and the Tri-Beta National Biology honor societies in addition to his research, the most challenging part of his fellowship will be letting the bacteria take the lead. “I’m dealing with bacteria, which is living. If they don’t decide to be as grown as I want them to be, then I can’t do anything about it,” he says. “So I have certain expectations that I might not meet, but that’s science. Just take things in stride and work your best as you go along.”

As he prepares for a busy senior year of student life, research, and MCATs, Lawrence reflects back on those first moments at Pace that got him where he is today. “I don’t see myself as a success story yet,” he says. “I’m more of a rough draft of what I expect myself to do later in life.”

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