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Department of Microbiology & Immunology Current Students

First-Year Students

Alexis Brantly

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BA, English, University of Florida; MS, Microbiology and Cell Science, University of Florida
Email: ab4532@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: First Year Rotations
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Background and Interests: My research background primarily focuses on cancer and cancer virology. During my undergraduate studies I was involved in studying the DNA damage response in the context of cancer development, and during my masters I looked at the effect of novel STAT3 inhibitors on Epstein - Barr Virus derived cancers. After graduating with my masters I went on to work with Human Papillomavirus, looking at the effect of PTPN14 in promoting a cancer phenotype in HPV positive keratinocytes. I am primarily interested in virology and immunology.


Mackenzie Collins

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Clinical Laboratory Science, BA, Biology; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Email: mc4289@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Garth Ehrlich, PhD (Rotating)
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Background and Interests: Following my undergraduate degrees, my work in diagnostics at a clinical Molecular Microbiology lab at UNC Medical Center has fueled my broad interest in improving molecular research and diagnostic techniques to combat antimicrobial resistance and benefit patients with chronic and persisting infections.


Adam Glass

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, Washington College
Email: ag3894@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: First-Year Rotations
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Background and Interests: Upon completion of my undergraduate education, I worked for two years as an ORISE post-baccalaureate research fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. My research focused on bacteriophage therapy, specifically for the nasal decolonization of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. I have a particular fascination with virology and emerging infectious diseases, but am excited to expand my knowledge across the many topics in microbiology and immunology.


Kyra Woloszczuk

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Microbiology, University of the Sciences; MS, Infectious Disease and Immunity, Temple University
Email: kw959@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: First-year Rotation
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Background and Interests: My Master's research was targeted at mixed-species biofilms and horizontal gene transfer of antibiotic resistance determinants. Following my MS, I spent four years working in an industry where I focused on post-surgical site infections, biofilm growth on medically implanted devices, and the development of novel antibiotics to specifically target gram-negative antibiotic-resistant bacteria. My current interests include host-pathogen interactions, antimicrobial resistance, and vaccine development.


Lilly McQueen

Microbiology & Immunology Master's Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Ursinus College
Email: lmm544@drexel.edu
Advisor: First-year rotations
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Background and Interests: During my time at Ursinus College, I researched the use of single-walled carbon nanotubes covalently attached to antibiotics to circumvent mechanisms of antibiotic resistance in Coliforms and Enterococci isolated from raw sewage influent. While at Ursinus, I also joined the Parlee Center for Science and the Common Good, an organization that strives to consider the intersection of science and other ways of understanding – ethical, political, religious, and artistic. After graduation I was hired as a laboratory technician at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Molecular Characterization of Foodborne Pathogens Unit. While there, I helped identify genes associated with cell adhesion and biofilm formation in O157:H7. I love working with pathogenic bacteria and am interested in mechanisms of antibiotic resistance and natural product antibiotics. I also dabble in bioethics and science policy and would like to have an impact in these discussions.


Rachel Reviello

Microbiology & Immunology Master's Program
Undergraduate: BS, Microbiology, The Pennsylvania State University
Email: rer89@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Elise Mosser, PhD
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Background and Interests: I have always been passionate about both microbiology and education. During my undergraduate experience, I spent my time outside of my own classes teaching introductory microbiology lab courses. I find scientific mentorship to be incredibly fulfilling because I get to share novel information with my students and expose them to the exciting world of microbes. I hope to become a science educator who focuses on developing student's critical thinking skills with active learning techniques. My research interests are broad but working with preliminary data to define complex mechanisms has been exciting for me.


William Stump

Microbiology & Immunology Master's Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, Gettysburg College
Email: ws454@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: First-year rotations
Background and Interests: My past research experience focused on characterizing bacteriophage genomics and host-pathogen interactions between phage and their bacterial hosts. Here at Drexel, I find myself most interested in the development of more effective vaccines that better promote host immune responses to prevent or treat diseases.


Julia Sutter

Microbiology & Immunology Master's Program
Undergraduate: BS Biochemistry, University of New Haven
Email: js4932@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Rotations in progress
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Background and Interests: My undergraduate research focused on the identification of novel mutations in viruses contributing to viral myocarditis. In addition to my undergraduate research, I completed an internship in the Pre-Therapeutic Target Discovery department at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. At this internship, my research was focused on investigating differences in tumor growth and cytokine activity in the tumor microenvironment for different strains of mice. My research interests include studying viruses and their contribution to disease.

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Second-Year Students

Erik Carter

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Pathobiology, University of Connecticut
Email: ec899@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Irwin Chaiken, PhD
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Background and Interests: Following my undergraduate education, I spent six years working, both in academia and industry, in molecular virology, viral immunology and vaccine development. My interests are primarily in the areas of virus-host interaction and vaccine design, particularly as they pertain to RNA viruses. My project focuses on a highly conserved region of the HIV-1 envelope protein called the membrane proximal external region (MPER). My goal is to understand the conformational structure of this region and explore ways of using it as a vaccine antigen.


Gina Cusimano

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biotechnology, Elizabethtown College; MS, Molecular Medicine, Drexel University
Email: gc468@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Dr. Michelle Kutzler
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Background and Interests: I have a BS in biotechnology and MS in molecular medicine. Following my masters, I spent three years working at Merck Co. & Inc. where I supported vaccine commercialization, manufacturing optimization and batch release. My overall interests are in immune modulation and how our understanding of immune modulation can be applied to vaccine/ adjuvant development as well as cancer immunotherapy development.


Julie Joseph

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, St. John’s University; MS, Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of New Haven
Email: jj932@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Dr. Pooja Jain
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Background and Interests: My overall interest is in understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that dictate immunological responses to infection, disease and autoimmune disorders. My past research experience focused on identifying T- cell populations that may be responsible in the generation of food-specific antibodies as well as assisting in characterizing a sub-population of T follicular helper cells that drive anaphylactic IgE. Currently, my primary research focuses on understanding the mechanisms that underlie HTLV-1 associated myelopathy/ tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP) and the role exosomes and immune checkpoint mediators play in the overall anti-viral immune response associated with this debilitating neuroinflammatory disease.


Abhisek Rao

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BE, Instrumentation Engineering, Vishwakarma Institute, Pune, India; MS, Biomedical Engineering, Drexel University
Email: asr56@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: First-year rotations in progress
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Dominic J. Sales

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, James Madison University
Email: djs487@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Pooja Jain, PhD
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Background and Interests: My background involves a general aptitude for all things science, specifically cellular and molecular biology. I have always been interested in the interplay between self and non-self, and how biological processes can lead to disease. During my undergraduate education at James Madison University, I was part of a lab that investigated migrational aspects of immortalized tumor cells within extracellular matrices. After graduation, I worked as a laboratory technician at Thomas Jefferson University where I studied a model of pulmonary fibrosis and senescence both in vitro and in vivo. I am currently in Dr. Jain’s lab whose focus is on understanding the mechanisms driving disease pathology during HTLV-1 infection and understanding the role that dendritic cells play in orchestrating the immune response. My project aims to better understand the crosstalk between different populations of immune cells, the impact of this crosstalk on neuroinflammation, and how we can modulate this to develop more effective treatment modalities for patients with neuroinflammatory conditions such as multiple sclerosis.


Neeta Shadija

Microbiology & Immunology Master's Program
Undergraduate: BE, Biotechnology, University of Mumbai
Email: ns3338@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Hangjun Ke, PhD
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My undergraduate research focused on the bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons in soil using the indigenous bacteria and fungi. During my undergraduate studies, I presented a review seminar on using Batroxobin, a venomous component of the snake Bothrops atrox moojeni, as an alternative to thrombin for blood clotting. I also have experience in a pharmaceutical company as an industrial trainee where I drafted dossiers for the company’s exported products.

My current research study focuses on the V-type ATPase and the mitochondrial fission of Plasmodium falciparum. V-type ATPases are highly conserved multi-subunit enzymes found in all eukaryotic organisms. It is present in the intracellular membranes of various organelles such as lysosomes, endosomes and secretory vesicles. It has been known that V-type-ATPase works as an ATP-driven rotary proton pump that causes acidification of intracellular vesicles such as endosomes and lysosomes and is thus crucial for various processes. Another unique feature of this machinery is the reversible assembly/disassembly of its V1 and Vo domains, regulating the organelle acidification in response to extracellular conditions. This machinery is evolutionarily conserved in malaria parasites; however, its biological significance has been under-appreciated. The project aims to understand the localization, composition, mechanism and regulation of this proton-pumping machinery in an early divergent eukaryotic organism (malaria parasite).

Apicomplexan protozoans (in general) have a single mitochondrion per cell, which is essential for all life cycle stages. Once in erythrocytes, the malaria parasite grows and divides via a unique reproduction mechanism termed schizogony, which gives rise to 8-32 progeny by dividing the single multinucleated schizont at the end of the asexual lifecycle. Hence, during the process of schizogony, the single mitochondrion of the parasite is also split into 8-32 pieces, which is known as mitochondrial fission. However, neither the mitochondrial fission machinery nor the mechanisms of fission are known in malaria parasites. Using Plasmodium falciparum as a model, the goal of this project is to identify the essential components of the mitochondrial fission machinery.


Omobukola Solebo

Microbiology & Immunology Master's Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, The College of New Jersey
Email: os337@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Hangjun Ke, PhD
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Background and Interests: During my undergraduate experience, I identified microbiology and education to be my two primary interests and have spent time exploring both avenues. After working on Mycobacterium tuberculosis for a period of time and teaching high school biology, I decided to return to obtain my master's in microbiology and immunology to work toward the goal of more closely bridging these two fields. It is my goal to conduct the critical science and provide the vital health information that protects the public and informs and transforms health security. This, I believe, would be the best way to merge my two passions together to have just as an impactful effect as teaching.

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Third-Year Students

Matthew Bell

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, Gwynedd Mercy University
Email: mrb433@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Michele Kutzler, PhD

Background and Interests: During my time at Gwynedd Mercy University, I studied the relationship between Quercus spp and members of the root microbiome. I also aided in the isolation and characterization of an endophytic bacterium, Serratia marcescens, that produced prodigiosin, a secondary metabolite that shows antibiotic and antitumor properties. Currently, in Dr. Kutzler's lab, my research focuses on studying the impacts of immunosenescence on both the innate and adaptive immune responses in the context of C. difficile infection as well as the immune response to a DNA vaccine for C. difficile.


Olivia Cipollini

Microbiology & Immunology Master's Program
Undergraduate: BS, Microbiology/Molecular Biology, Quinnipiac University
Email: oc65@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Sonia Navas-Martin, PhD

Background and Interests: My current research focuses on characterizing the effects of amyloid-beta stimulation in various cell lines, specifically examining the innate immune response. Additionally, we are evaluating the potential role of the toll-like receptor 3 (TLR3) pathway in this response.


Elijah H. Davis

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biological Sciences, University of Maryland Baltimore County
Email: ehd43@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Sonia Navas-Martin
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Background and Interests: Shortly after graduating for UMBC, I accepted a position within Virginia Commonwealth University’s post-baccalaureate research education program. During this year, I worked in VCU’s Immunology & Microbiology Department, conducting research with Dr. Rebecca Martin and Dr. Daniel Conrad. Our study investigated how helminth infections could confer protection against allergic pathologies. We discovered that B1 cell-derived IgE can enhance parasite survival and may play a role in reducing allergic conditions. We were able to publish these results and present them at national conferences.

Currently, I am part of Drexel’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology and work with Dr. Sonia Navas-Martin. Our lab is focused on understanding novel Toll-like receptor signaling pathways and their role in inflammation. My project examines the relationship between Toll-like receptors and exosomal responses within microglia. My other research interests include autoimmune diseases, hypersensitivity disorders, and neuroinflammation.


Rita Esposito

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology; BA, Theatre, Acting Concentration; Muhlenberg College
Email: rae55@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Fred Krebs, PhD

Background and Interests: The effects of nonthermal plasma on herpes simplex virus (HSV) binding, entry and replication in epithelial cells.


Dema Ghaban

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: MD, Medicine, Taibah University, Saudi Arabia; MSc, Immunology and Allergy, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom
Email: dmg384@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Alexander Muller, PhD

Background and Interests: Part of my work in the U.K. focused on multiple sclerosis (MS) which has high prevalence in the U.K. and is one of the most common causes of neurological disability in the younger population. In one project, we looked for the role of multiple sclerosis-associated retrovirus envelope (one of the two main elements encoded by the W family of human endogenous retroviruses) in the pathogenesis of MS. We also studied which immune cells are involved in this process.


Theodore E. Gurrola

Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology, Drake University
Email: teg65@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Brian Wigdahl, PhD, and Michael Nonnemacher, PhD
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Background and Interests: My undergraduate research involved elucidating the structure and mechanism of contraction of one of the fastest organisms in the world, the ciliated protozoan Tetrahymena thermophila. My job was to isolate, purify and prepare the protein thought to give the protozoan its contractile ability, Tcb2, for NMR analysis as well as elucidate the structure of the protein with NMR. This work helped me develop the skills necessary to become a scientist. My professors and what I learned in undergraduate led me to pursue gene editing and its applications as a career, which has led me to the Wigdahl Llab. My current research interests are to use gene editing technologies to treat and potentially cure HIV-1 infection.


Doug Krauth

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Cellular and Physiological Biology, University of Louisville
Email: dmk357@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Sonia Navas-Martin, PhD

Background and Interests: After completing my undergraduate biology degree, I joined the Bagaitkar Lab in the University of Louisville’s Oral Immunology and Infectious Disease Department. There, my research focused on delineating the role NADPH oxidase-derived oxidants have in immune-regulation. Specifically, I worked to understand how NOX-deficient neutrophils contributed to the hyper-inflammatory response seen in patients with chronic granulomatous disease (CGD) and the role ROS plays in modulating neutrophil effecter functions. More recently, my research interests focus on understanding how neurotropic viruses spread within the CNS and how immune responses to viral infection differ in the brain and the periphery.


Richa Pande

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS), India
Email: rp834@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Seena Ajit, PhD
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Background and Interests: My previous research experience at NYU Langone Medical Center involved studying ubiquitination and its modification in the cell cycle, including its role in circadian rhythm. After relocating to Philadelphia, I pursued research at the University of Pennsylvania in an immunology laboratory that focused on the mechanisms that lead to impaired fracture healing and connective tissue and bone loss in diabetes via altered transcription factor activity and cytokine dysregulation.

The Ajit Lab investigates the molecular mechanisms of pain with emphasis on epigenetics. At present, my project involves studying microRNA has-miR-605 and its role in regulating the pro-inflammatory chemokine CXCL5 in CRPS patients. Another project involves studying the role of macrophage-derived small extracellular vesicles (sEVs) on helper T cell activation during inflammation. This study will help elucidate the contribution of these immune cell subtypes in sEVs-induced attenuation of inflammatory pain.

Sydney Wilson

Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, Drexel University
Email: ssw56@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Pooja Jain, PhD
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Background and Interests: As an undergraduate at Drexel, I completed my co-op as a research assistant in Dr. Eishi Noguchi's lab. My research project aimed to elucidate the molecular mechanisms of Maf1 in genomic stability and lifespan regulation under calorie-restricted conditions in fission yeast. I discovered my passion for research during this co-op and continued to work in Dr. Noguchi's lab in order to complete my senior thesis on this same project. This experience inspired me to apply for molecular biology and genetics graduate programs.

My current research interest is centered around adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATLL), which is caused by prior infection of human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1). My research project in Dr. Jain's lab is primarily focused on characterizing the disease mechanism of ATLL specifically by delineating the role of MEF-2 in hopes of identifying a novel drug target for the treatment of ATLL.

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Fourth-Year Students

Avantika I. Ahiya

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: MS, Biotechnology, Nirma University
Email: aia36@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Akhil B. Vaidya, PhD

Background and Interests: My undergraduate research involved understanding the role of CD8+ T-cells in providing long-lived protective immunity against irradiated sporozoites during malaria infection. Subsequent to this, I worked on a large scale RNAi screen to identify genes that co-operate with the oncogenes in the EFGR/Yki pathway in a Drosophila tumor model. My current research in the Vaidya Lab is focused on understanding the underlying molecular pathways that are perturbed upon treatment with antimalarials. Specifically, uncovering the mechanisms by which Plasmodium maintains low levels of cholesterol, a process that is perturbed upon treatment with antimalarials that cause accumulation of Na+ in the parasite.


Jennifer Connors

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: MS, Drexel University College of Medicine
Email: jrc354@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Elias El Haddad, MD, and Michele Kutzler, PhD
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Background and Interests: The innate and adaptive branches of immunity undergo a process termed immunosenescence, in which an increase in basal inflammation levels occur. Consequences of this include poor vaccine responses and dysregulation of the immune system leading to grave clinical complications for the elderly. In dendritic cells (DCs) and monocytes, immunosenescence results in modulation of antigen presentation function in response to stimuli signals. A large body of evidence shows a decrease in significant pro-inflammatory cytokines and surface or endosomal TLR and RLR expression in aged innate cells. However, the effects of aging on the downstream mechanism of these signaling pathways have not been evaluated. In the Haddad Lab, we aim to find a deficit in a downstream signaling mechanism that accounts for the inefficient adaptive immune response seen in the elderly in reaction to vaccines and use this information to ameliorate vaccine responses.


Ian Lamb

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, University of Iowa
Email: iml28@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Akhil Vaidya, PhD

Background and Interests: Before starting my PhD at Drexel University College of Medicine, I spent two years as a technician at the University of Iowa looking at immune responses in dogs naturally infected with the protozoan parasite Leishmania infantum. I then moved to New York City, where I was a lab manager for a joint laboratory at Weill Cornell Medical College for two years. The lab investigated DNA damage responses in yeast and mammalian cells with a focus on VDJ recombination in developing B cells. At Drexel, I joined Dr. Akhil Vaidya’s laboratory. The lab studies basic aspects of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum’s molecular physiology with particular attention to the mitochondrion. Since malaria parasites and humans are both eukaryotes, antimalarials often interfere with human protein function and therefore cause side effects. However, given the extreme divergence of mitochondria between P. falciparum and humans, selective toxicity to the parasite is possible. This is highlighted by the antimalarial Atovaquone, which inhibits the parasite bc1 complex of the electron transport chain, thus causing parasite demise. My project focuses on characterizing the function of mitochondrial proteins in P. falciparum that are essential to parasite viability but have no annotated function. The long-term goal is to identify novel protein targets for antimalarials.


Jill M. Lawrence

Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Neuroscience (magna cum laude, with departmental honors), Ursinus College
Email: jl3785@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Michael Nonnemacher, PhD
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Background and Interests: At Ursinus College, I participated in microbiology research identifying mutations that conferred antibiotic resistance in Enterococcus strains isolated from samples provided by a local sewage treatment plant. I also conducted an independent neuroscience research project that involved extensive neurobehavioral testing and analyses of a mouse model of prenatal ethanol exposure and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). I served as a teaching assistant for several biology labs during my time at Ursinus, and currently tutor for biomedical courses at Drexel University College of Medicine. I am now a PhD candidate performing neurovirology research in the lab of Dr. Michael Nonnemacher. We investigate the relationship between changes in blood-brain barrier permeability, neuroglia cell activation and the neuropathology underlying development and progression of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND) in HIV-infected patients.


Robert W. Link

Biomedical Engineering PhD Program, School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems
Undergraduate: BS, Biochemistry (Philosophy minor), Juniata College
Email: rwl42@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Will Dampier, PhD, and Brian Wigdahl, PhD
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Background and Interests: During my time as an undergraduate, I investigated interactions between bacterial community structures in the neonatal gut microbiome using co-occurrence networks to determine possible etiologies for necrotizing enterocolitis. After graduating, I enrolled in Drexel's Biomedical Engineering PhD program, where I am mentored by both Dr. Will Dampier and Dr. Brian Wigdahl. I am currently investigating how variation within the HIV-1 TAR RNA and the HIV-1 Tat protein influences their ability to interact with one another through the use of sequence-based deep learning models. This can then be applied to predict how specific Tat and TAR variants can alter HIV-1's ability to initiate replication.


Teresa M. LuPone

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Microbiology, BS, Health Sciences, BA, Journalism and Mass Communications, MS, Science of Healthcare Delivery, Arizona State University; MS in Microbiology and Immunology, Drexel University College of Medicine
Email: tml86@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Sonia Navas-Martin, PhD

Background and Interests: My undergraduate research focused on understanding genetic alterations in response to DAMPs and developmental delays in Drosophila melanogaster. My job was to perform expression studies and monitor developmental timing. Throughout my research and coursework at Arizona State University, I became interested in following a path into medically relevant research specifically in the field of virology. As such I am interested in aspects of virology and immunity particularly in host pathogen interactions, how viruses escape the host immune system, and building a deeper understanding of the complexities of the immune system.


Hager Mohamed

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Microbiology, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University; MS, Molecular Biology, Montclair State University
Email: hm469@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Fred C. Krebs, PhD
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Background and Interests: My project involves characterizing the effects of non-thermal plasma (NTP) on T lymphocytes and HIV-1 infection. Our studies investigate cellular stress responses and the induction of immunogenic cell death after non-thermal plasma exposure. The effect of NTP on HIV-1 replication and latent infection is also being explored. Our long-term goal is to use these studies to guide the development of a novel immunotherapy for HIV-1 infected individuals.


Kayla M. Socarras

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biological Sciences, University of Saint Joseph; MS, Cellular Molecular Biology, University of New Haven
Email: kms58@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Garth D. Ehrlich, PhD
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ResearchGate

Background and Interests: Kayla Socarras is a PhD student in Garth Ehrlich’s lab within the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at Drexel University College of Medicine. Prior to joining Drexel University, Kayla received her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Saint Joseph. Afterwards, she continued her education at the University of New Haven for a master’s degree in cellular molecular biology. During her master’s, Kayla participated in several ongoing studies on the pathogenesis of Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme borreliosis, alternatively known as Lyme disease. Lyme borreliosis is globally one the most common bacterial vector-borne diseases and has become more prevalent due to climate and ecological changes over the past decades. For her master’s thesis, Kayla tested several antimicrobials for their efficiency on destroying Borrelia burgdorferi in vitro as well as their potential efficacy as a therapeutic treatment. After completing her master's thesis, Kayla also did a post-graduate research fellowship at the University of New Haven. During her fellowship, Kayla studied the pathogenesis of Borrelia spp in causing Borrelial lymphocytoma, a cutaneous infection that occurs primarily within individuals infected with Borrelia spp in Europe.

Currently, at Drexel University College of Medicine, Kayla is continuing her research on the pathogenesis of Borrelia spp within the Center for Advanced Microbial Processing, with an emphasis on characterizing the complex dynamics of tick-borne disease microbes within the tick microbiome. In addition to her research studies, Kayla has presented her research in local meetings and conferences and her work on tick-borne diseases has been spoken about at several media outlets. Her media outreach encompasses traditional news outlets such as television, newspapers and radio as wells as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.


Yih-Ping Su

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Life Sciences, National Chung-Hsing University
Email: ys646@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Garth Ehrlich, PhD
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Background and Interests: After obtaining my BS in life sciences at National Chung-Hsing University, Taiwan, I worked as a junior research fellow at the Baruch S. Blumberg Institute, focusing on the development of a non-invasive screening approach for the early detection of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). My current research interest at Drexel is to investigate the impact of hepatitis B virus (HBV) genotypes, mutations and integration on liver carcinogenesis, with an aim to develop an HCC risk prediction program for the management of the disease.

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Fifth-Year Students

Swati Dass

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Fergusson College, University of Pune, India; MS, Zoology, University of Pune, India
Email: sd978@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Hangjun Ke, PhD; co-advisor: Akhil Vaidya, PhD
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Background and Interests: My master’s research work was to monitor the antimalarial drug resistance in the among field isolates from Pune, India. The results revealed a high percentage of patients were developing resistance to the prolonged use of four antimalarial drugs and thus rendering the whole therapy counterproductive. I later joined a pharmaceutical company and worked on designing antiviral drugs against hepatitis C virus using molecular docking studies. I am currently interested in understanding the biology of the malaria parasite Plasmodium. I have joined Dr. Hangjun Ke’s lab, and here my research work focuses on the mitochondrial ribosomes (mitoribosomes) of Plasmodium falciparum. Plasmodium mitoribosome have taken an unusual evolutionary route of assembling 30 highly reduced and fragmented rRNA of about 20-200 bp in length with nuclear encoded mitoribosomal proteins (3). Using CRISPR/Cas9 double crossover recombination technique with a TetR-DOZI-aptamer system, we have shown that mitoribosomes are essential for the malaria parasites to maintain the structural and functional integrity of the parasite mitochondrion and are essential for the survival of the parasite (2). I am currently working on developing a protocol to isolate these mitoribosomes to explore the unique and unknown compositional and structural features of the malarial mitoribosomes. The long-term goal of the project is to get an atomic-level structure of this highly diverse ribosomal assembly known, which can be further studied as a potential antimalarial drug target.


Katherine (Kaytie) Innamorati

Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Gettysburg College
Email: kai37@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Garth Ehrlich, PhD
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Background and Interests: Kaytie is interested in comparative genomics, genetics and metabolism research. Her undergraduate research focused on analysis of SNPs in a candidate gene (KIT) for cochleosaccular deafness, using a pedigree of Spanish mustangs with a history of white coats, blue eyes and deafness. She then went on to do drug discovery research in a Drosophila melanogaster model of Alzheimer's disease. Currently, Kaytie is interested in genomic differences between strains of pathogenic bacterial species. She is studying the pangenomes of two mucosal membrane pathogens, Gardnerella vaginalis and Porphyromonas gingivalis, to determine differences in gene possession that could relate to differences in virulence in patients.


Abdullah Izmirly

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Medical Laboratory Technology, King Abdulaziz University; MS, Immunology, Drexel University
Email: ami38@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Elias Haddad, PhD; co-advisor: Michele Kutzler, PhD
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Background and Interests: I developed an early interest in biology, which led me to obtain my undergraduate degree majoring in medical laboratory technology from King Abdul-Aziz University (KAU). I have received extensive clinical experience with rotations in all clinical laboratories at KAU hospital including an immunology laboratory. This was followed by an internship that was divided between blood bank, hematology and the level 3 biosafety virology unit at King Fahad Research Center. Getting exposed to immunology and virology during my undergraduate studies focused my passion for immunology and infectious disease. This passion resulted in my pursuing my master's in immunology at Drexel University. During my master's, I worked in David Weiner's laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. During that period, I worked with Dr. Muthumani Karuppiah on a part of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) DNA vaccine project, which is currently undergoing a Phase II clinical trial. Afterward, I joined the Microbiology and Immunology PhD program and currently work at Dr. Elias Haddad’s laboratory on the novel live-attenuated dengue vaccine (TV003) that is curranty in Phase III trial. Dengue virus is one of the most transmitted mosquito-borne diseases worldwide, with an estimate infection rate of close to 400 million yearly. Dengue places a great burden both on health as well as the economy, and the vaccine that is currently licensed is only administered to dengue seropositive individuals. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the development of a highly efficacious dengue vaccine that provides protection regardless of dengue serostatus.


Ronak Loonawat

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: MS, Biotechnology, SIES College, Mumbai University
Email: ami38@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Michael Bouchard, PhD

Background and Interests: Hepatitis B virus (HBV) has come a long way from first being linked to "Australian Antigen" to now being one of the most dreadful viruses known to humans. HBV chronically infects 257 million people worldwide, which resulted in 887,000 deaths just in 2015 alone. Chronic HBV infection is a leading cause of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), which in turn is the second most prevalent cause of deaths related to cancer worldwide. Mechanistically, the advancement from HBV infection to HCC is not fully understood. However, recent studies indicate that alterations by HBV to cellular metabolism could be one of the factors that lead to transformation of the hepatocytes. We are addressing this question by focusing on the perturbation of glucose metabolism using primary rat hepatocytes (PRHs)/primary human hepatocytes (PHHs) and HBV-expressing recombinant adenovirus infection model systems. While studying metabolic pathways, it is important to focus on nutrient conditioning and oxygen exposure, as these factor are key to metabolic regulation. Hence, we carried out our experiments using physiologically relevant medium and oxygenic conditions. Here, we show that AdHBV infected PRHs have increased glucose uptake rate as compared to the controls. We also show an effect of varying glucose concentration on HBcAg (HBV core protein) levels and on HBV replication suggesting a major role of glucose utilization on viral pathogenesis. Furthermore, to understand how glucose is being utilized by the hepatocytes to favor HBV replication, we hereby present data to support that upregulation of glucose uptake could be mediated by PKM2 (pyruvate kinase M2)/HIF1a (hypoxia inducible factor 1a) axis, which is one of the most commonly activated pathways in cancers. Glucose could then be subsequently shunted toward anabolic PPP (pentose phosphate pathway) generating excess nucleic acids required for viral replication. Downregulating PKM2 transcriptional activity using digoxin also reduces HBV replication, corroborating the importance of the PKM2/HIF1a axis in HBV pathogenesis. Understanding how HBV manipulates cellular activities that subsequently cause HCC may reveal some new potential therapeutic targets.


Kiran Madugula

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biotechnology, Satyabama University, Chennai, India; MS, Immunology, Long Island University, C.W. Post and LIJ North Shore Medical Center
Email: km3349@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Pooja Jain, PhD
LinkedIn

Background and Interests: As a doctoral student working in Dr. Pooja Jain’s lab at Drexel University College of Medicine, I am involved in various projects that are associated with HTLV-1 (human T-cell leukemia virus-1) pathogenesis. HTLV-1 was the first discovered retrovirus, even before HIV; it is a fast-growing epidemic in various parts of the world like Australia, Japan, South America, parts of Caribbean and in some immigrant populations in the U.S. It causes two disease phenotypes, ATLL (adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma) and HAM/TSP (HTLV-1 associated myelopathy/tropical paraparesis). My project revolves around a transcription factor MEF-2 (myocyte enhancer factor-2), its role in HTLV-1 pathogenesis and causing ATLL. In this study we are analyzing various HLTV-1 infected cell lines and patient cohorts to narrow down the distinct role of MEF-2 isoforms that are involved in causing ATLL post infection of HTLV-1. Also, we are working on MEF-2 as a potential drug target for interfering carcinogenesis of ATLL at various upstream and downstream loci of the MEF-2 pathway and potentially translating it as a drug in clinical setting. I want to pursue my goal of working toward cancer immune therapeutics where I can apply my current knowledge and previous research experience in cancer immunology to harness the immune system against/in the tumor microenvironment and produce translational medicine to treat various kinds of cancers.


Haley M. Majer

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BSc, Life Sciences, Penn State University
Email: hmm76@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Joris Beld, PhD
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Background and Interests: I received a BSc in life sciences from Penn State University in 2015. I went on to receive my first professional science experience working as a microbiologist for Eurofins, Lancaster Labs biopharmaceutical microbiology testing group. My undergraduate experience combined with my professional training led to my interest in drug design and development with the career goal of directing industrial lab operations. I work in the lab of Dr. Joris Beld, studying natural product discovery, and believe this thesis research will provide the proper training to accomplish my goals.


Phillip Palmer

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, Stockton University
Email: pp496@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Garth Ehrlich, PhD
LinkedIn

Background and Interests: Bacterial persistence describes the ability of some cells within a genetically susceptible population to survive antibiotic treatment. Compared to resistance where all cells survive antibiotics unaffected, persistence is due to a difference in phenotype that results in some cells being dormant. The reawakening of persisters has been implicated in reestablishment of infections, potentially leading to antibiotic resistance. My research focuses on developing molecular tools to observe the behavior of persister cells.


Danielle Piazza

Molecular & Cell Biology & Genetics PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Ithaca College
Email: danielle.r.piazza@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Joshua Chang Mell, PhD
LinkedIn

Background and Interests: My previous research experiences was as a laboratory technician at a CRO company that specialized in molecular cloning in E. coli to produce gene expression constructs and protein purification. My current research relates to studying the way natural transformation varies around the Haemophilus influenzae chromosome. It is known that different parts of the chromosome transform at different rates, but the underlying causes of this variation are not well-defined. Understanding the constraints and limitations to this variation will help us to predict potential vaccine candidates, as this normally commensal pathogen is a problem in pediatric ear infections and chronic respiratory infections.


Amanda Platt

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Biology, Eastern University; MS, Biomedical Sciences, Temple University
Email: ajp369@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Joris Beld, PhD

Background and Interests: I am interested in bacterial genetics and secondary metabolism. Work for my master's thesis focused on detecting horizontal gene transfer events within mixed species bacterial biofilms. My current project is focused on characterizing bacterial non-ribosomal peptide synthases, which are an important source of medically relevant secondary metabolites.


Cassandra Spector

Microbiology & Immunology PhD Program
Undergraduate: BS, Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Connecticut; MS, Microbiology and Immunology, Drexel University College of Medicine
Email: cs3373@drexel.edu
Advisor/Mentor: Michael Nonnemacher, PhD
LinkedIn

Background and Interests: After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a BS in molecular and cell biology, I worked at Charles River Laboratories in the Research Animal Diagnostic Services Molecular Diagnostics Department. There, I was part of a team using TaqMan PCR testing to identify and diagnose microbial infections in laboratory animals. I then matriculated into the MS in Microbiology and Immunology program at Drexel University College of Medicine and, upon completion of my MS degree, transitioned into the Microbiology and Immunology PhD program. My research in the Nonnemacher Lab focuses on genetic variation in the HIV-1 transactivator of transcription (Tat) protein and how this variation affects Tat function. Tat has been observed to be a major contributor to HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND) in HIV-infected individuals. Moreover, naturally occurring amino acid variants of Tat have been found to be functionally impaired in HIV-1 promoter region transactivation as well as in causing neuronal damage. Therefore, my work aims to i) identify specific amino acid variants in Tat that correlate with neurocognitive impairment in our Philadelphia-based HIV-infected patient cohort, and ii) determine mechanisms of neuropathogenesis in which Tat amino acid variants exhibit differential function.

 
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