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Research: Understanding Tuberculosis

News Story

Dyson Professor Marcy Kelly, PhD, has enlisted several students to assist with research in better understanding tuberculosis; including Eric Casper ’19, who views the research as a key component of his undergraduate experience.

Tuberculosis, an infectious disease which often attacks the lungs, has been wreaking havoc on humans and other animals for thousands of years. Tuberculosis became a significant public health hazard during the industrial revolution, and while its mortality rate has dropped significantly in developed countries, tuberculosis is still endemic in many underdeveloped countries throughout the world.

Dyson Professor Marcy Kelly, PhD, has dedicated much of her scientific research to better understanding tuberculosis—with the long term goal of helping eradicate the disease completely.

“My lab focuses on the interaction between the human immune response and the organism that causes tuberculosis,” says Kelly. “The ultimate goal of our work is to provide information to understand how our body handles the disease in order to help pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines.”

While pharmaceutical companies do in fact offer tuberculosis vaccines currently, Kelly notes that they have a low efficacy—meaning that they are not the most effective, and could be significantly improved. According to the World Health Organization, tuberculosis remains one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, killing 1.6 million people in 2017.

“There’s a great need to understand more about the disease and the organism that causes the disease,” says Kelly.

Kelly’s research is not a solo venture. As the research has spanned several years, she has enlisted several students to assist with the work in the lab. One student, Eric Casper ’19, became interested in working with Kelly after taking several classes with her, and learning more about the nature of the tuberculosis research.

Casper joined Kelly’s team during his sophomore year, and it has become a seminal aspect of his undergraduate experience. After shadowing an older student initially, Casper eventually moved on to managing his own aspect of the research. Currently he is looking at how the bacteria that remains in the body following a tuberculosis diagnosis remains alive, potentially over the span of several decades, within the lungs. As Casper notes, even if a tuberculosis threat is eradicated, it could lay dormant and eventually reemerge when the immune system is weakened.

“My research is figuring out how the bacteria remains alive within the dormant state,” says Casper.

Kelly notes that one of the most satisfying aspects of researching with students, in addition to striving to make major gains in understanding one of the world’s more devastating diseases, is watching students develop the skills necessary to become effective researchers and scientists.

“A lot of the work I do with the students is really helping them develop their critical thinking skills,” says Kelly. “Working in a lab, that’s not the important point. The important point is thinking about what kind of questions we want to ask, evaluating what does the data mean on a smaller scale and then also what does the data mean in the context of the entire research project. ”

“I was able to plan out a schedule, stick to a schedule, and see it throughout,” says Casper. “That’s one thing college itself prepared me for, but especially research. It’s also helped me with being OK to fail. There’s a lot of trials where things just ending up dying, failing, not going your way. That’s inevitably how life is going to be.”

“The other thing they’re learning is patience,” says Kelly. “No matter how well prepared you are or how great your experiments are, to get them to work and to have them provide you with data, even data you’re not expecting, is difficult.”

As part of the Office of Student Success’ Undergraduate Student/Faculty Research program, Kelly and Casper’s work will be on display at New York City’s Student Faculty Research Day on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. In June, Eric will be  presenting in San Francisco at the American Society for Microbiology Microbe.