Graduate School Spotlight: Richard Davis

4 May

Growing up in Huntsville as the son of computer scientists, enjoying books like Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, Richard Davis knew from a young age that he was interested in the way things work, and more specifically, in how tiny microbes affect the human body. As an undergraduate student at Auburn, Davis dove into the worlds of both liberal arts and the sciences, double majoring in musical theatre performance and microbiology. He now is a doctoral candidate in the Harrison School of Pharmacy’s Department of Drug Discovery and Development and has a research focus on antibiotic characterization using bioluminescence imaging.

What has been your proudest moment/accomplishment during your Graduate School experience?

Richard Davis

Richard Davis

Recently, my advisor and I decided to take a side track from our original research to make an attempt at outlining the genome of one of our particularly interesting bacterial strains.  Neither of us had ever taken a venture down this road before, and it proved to be much more difficult than we originally imagined. The project became a first real challenge into teaching myself new techniques in a relatively new field.  I had to teach myself how to use Linux, how to run commands in the pipeline, and how to incorporate the vast amounts of data these genomic projects produce into usable results.  We worked for almost two years, running just about every genome construction pipeline and sequencing technology we could.  I would say my proudest moment was the moment we were able to produce the closed genome.  Its completion, to my advisor and I, was a payback for the years of toiling with the data and believing it could be done.  If I recall correctly, I sent an email likening it to the birth of a “2.8 million base-pair baby”…for which I declare temporary insanity!

Your recent presentation on streamlining protocols for antibiotic characterization through bioluminescence imaging was a Judges Winner in the HSOP’s 2015 Research Symposium. How can bioluminescence improve the way that antibiotics are characterized?

It is important to note that no new antibiotic compounds have been discovered in the past decade.  There are many reasons for this, such as time, cost, and lack of new targets.  It can take up to ten years to go from design to a compound’s release.  With that in mind, it is essential that we know as much about a possible antibiotic as we can, before submitting to further testing.  By using bioluminescence, we have designed assays which can test thousands of potential antibiotics quickly and effectively.  The assay does not only test the antibiotic nature of a compound, but can also give direction to whether the bacteria is killed (“bactericidal”) or instead is just slowed in growth (“bacteriostatic”), reducing the amount of time and cost required for these studies.

What applications does your research on the characterization of infections using systeomic approaches have in people’s everyday lives?

Until recently, with the advent of technologies such as molecular imaging and next-generation sequencing, research has focused mostly on characterizing one or two elements of an infection at a time.  While we may imagine an infection as a linear chain of events, it is actually more like an intricate net, with a lot of redundancies.  Therefore, it is almost impossible to apply the knowledge of one component without considering its effect on the many other components it is connected to in this net (the “system”).  Although these technologies seem very different on the surface, they grant a great deal of information on the total system of an infection.  Using molecular imaging, we can actually observe particular aspects of an infection while the infection is actually taking place, without affecting the animal.  This allows us to gather data from one infection over the course of days or weeks, and gives a more holistic depiction of its biology, since all the bacterial mechanisms and immune responses are present.  By combining these observations with a knowledge of the genetic composition of the bacteria (genomics) and its expression and regulation (transcriptomics) we can begin to make distinct descriptions of how these bacteria cause disease, leading to new hypotheses to test, and the cycle continues.  The conclusions from our research help guide and filter the results of previous studies, produced by our lab or others, into the clinical setting.

What advice would you give to someone who is just beginning their graduate studies?

I frequently urge the students that I work with to not close any doors.  Sometimes, I can be found fiendishly taking notes in seminars or research presentations ranging from neurobiology to engineering.  You never know when a possible collaboration, conversation, or opportunity will come along, and the more you keep doors open, the more you will be able to leap at the opportunity.  I do not agree with “tuning out” of a discussion because something doesn’t seem related to your current field.  I find myself in conversations all the time with students from engineering, liberal arts, social sciences, and so on who challenge my ways of thinking.  These conversations always help get me out of my usual approach and challenge me to think outside the box.  Keep an open mind, and surround yourself with people who are in the same boat as you!

As an undergraduate, you were involved in both the liberal arts and the sciences, graduating with bachelor’s degrees in both musical theatre performance and microbial, cell and molecular biology. How has your involvement in two areas that people view as the opposites of one another benefited/impacted you?

This is always a favorite question of mine to answer.  For many years, I found it difficult, as others, to connect these two fields.  I knew I had a passion for one, and I knew I had a passion for the other.  As I became more senior, and entered into the amazing B.F.A. program and its upper level studio classes, actually at the same time I entered into research in the sciences, I began to realize the similarities in the artist and the scientific researcher.  The scientist forms hypotheses, tests them, and evaluates the results.  Similarly, as an actor, we form and test a new hypothesis (such as, “What if Hamlet is instead searching desperately to find a reason to live”).  The actor then tests this hypothesis in experimentation, through playing the scene with the other actors, and evaluates the results (was it effective, did I realize something new about this character that I had not before?).  In both fields, these evaluations lead to new questions, in a never-ending loop of discovery and reflection.  The sooner that one accepts the similarity in these studies, rather than the differences in the fields, the faster one begins to understand the universal nature of questioning.  There are many other benefits as well.  Actors are trained to really listen to a conversation, to go beyond the notion of what’s being said and determine the underlying meaning behind it, and I feel this skill has served me well when communicating my research.  Lessons in professionalism are useful for me on the day-to-day, and I’m hoping experience in auditioning techniques will serve me well with some upcoming interviews!  I also feel that lessons in unlocking breath and freeing the vocal cords for proper speech have been an immensely useful tool, both at conferences and in the classroom, and I would highly advise all people who give presentations to study some of these techniques, such as Fitzmaurice.

— Francesca Tully |


Graduate School Spotlight: Pam Hammond

30 Mar

Pam Hammond is enrolled in Auburn University’s Master of Accountancy program as a Lila White Fellow and expects to complete her degree this May. Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Hammond and her husband, James (also a native Texan), plan to move to Austin, Texas, this fall. With undergraduate degrees in both accounting and public administration, Hammond hopes to one day transition into nonprofit work.

Do you have a graduate assistantship? What does it entail?

Pam Hammond

Pam Hammond

I started the Master of Accountancy program in May as a Lila White Fellow, and I work under Julie Reece in the Graduate School. I do a lot of financial and administrative things that go on behind the scenes.

Why did you decide to double major in public administration and accounting?

Originally I was going to do political science because I was thinking about law school, but when I got here I decided I wanted to do some kind of business and political science. Then I took my first accounting class because I was in the business school and really liked it. A lot of it is thinking about finance a different kind of way. Public administration and accounting seem a bit random, but they actually go together really well. And I eventually I want to work for some kind of nonprofit, so the public administration definitely helps. But also, the accounting helps with understanding how business works. My background in accounting has given me such insight and a detailed view of how business works, that I don’t feel like maybe any other business major could have provided me as far as the financial aspect of it.

What makes the Auburn accounting program great?

It’s probably one of the few master’s program in the U.S. that you take your CPA during your master’s year. The way the schedule works out, the most people take is two classes. So they build the spring semester around you passing your CPA exam. Plus, I think everybody in the program already has a job offer.

What kept you busy during your undergraduate years at Auburn?

I was involved in the Women’s Resource Center as an undergrad. I was co-chair for the Chocolate Festival for the past three years, and this past year I was an adviser. Also, in Beta Alpha Psi (the accounting honor society), we all started a kickball tournament, which I co-founded, for one of our professors who got cancer.

What is your favorite Auburn memory?

My favorite memories are getting married on Samford Lawn and getting proposed to in front of my dorm. But I think what I just love, one of my favorite things, is just walking by Samford Hall when the bells are ringing at any time. I feel like the Auburn spirit is within me.

— Francesca Tully |

Graduate School Spotlight: Brandon Loomis

16 Mar

Brandon Loomis is a graduate student in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and is currently pursuing his Master of Natural Resources degree. After graduating from Furman University in 2005 with his B.A. in Political Science and from the University of Delaware in 2007 with his master’s degree in international relations, the Maryland native served seven years as an Army Officer, including three deployments. From the experiences he had as an Army officer and his appreciation for the outdoors, Loomis knew he wanted to ultimately have a career in forestry. He is the first recipient of the Vick Fellowship, which was established thanks to a generous gift from John and Faye Vick of Andalusia, Alabama.Brandon Loomis 

After being in the military, how was it you chose to come to Auburn for graduate school?

My wife’s from Jasper, Alabama, and when I was in the military, Jasper was kind of home base for us. I’ve been an Auburn football fan for 10 or 12 years, since my wife and I met at Furman. My wife’s family is involved in the forestry business. They’re land owners, so I got introduced to that through them. Of course, Auburn has a good forestry school. That was kind of my No. 1 choice. The program here fits me perfectly because I don’t have a forestry undergraduate degree. I don’t even have a biological sciences degree. With the program they have here, I took a few prerequisites before I came here to get me up to speed, and then I take all the undergraduate coursework to get my license as a forester, and at the same time, I take 36 hours to get my master’s in natural resources. So it’s kind of a perfect scenario.

Are you involved in any research projects?

My degree of Master of Natural Resources to become a professional forester is not a research-based degree. So typically, we don’t do that. But because I have this fellowship, I’m free to go where I want with [research]. This semester, one of my professors is doing research in Tuskegee National Forest through the Department of Agriculture, and I’m going to start working with him there this spring. It’s a win-win. I want to take the resources I’m being provided as a Vick Fellow and move that toward what my academic interests are, and I can work for him and he doesn’t have to pay me, which is great.

How would you describe your experience coming back to school after several years away?

Coming back, just being a little bit more mature and knowing what I want to do is such an advantage. At the end of undergrad, I knew I wanted to go into the military, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I kind of figured that out, and coming back to school has just been so much easier having that purpose. I was definitely nervous wondering if I’d be able to learn as fast as I used to and retain things, balance a family and things like that, but all the ducks have kind of fallen in a row for me. Whether it be the financial side (there’s a lot of support at Auburn for graduate education, specifically for veterans, but also for everyone), or the academic side, it’s come to me a lot easier with that professional mindset as opposed to just being a student trying to figure out what you want to do. For me, it was the best way to go back to school, to get some life experience after college. It’s really just been a rewarding experience for me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat do you want to do specifically once you complete your degree and are a professional forester?

In the long term, I’ve always thought I would probably own my own business — a land management business, timber business, some type of forestry consulting. In the short-term, forestry, like a lot of professions, isn’t something you can just know what you’re doing straight out of school. So I want to work for someone for a while. There are a lot of good companies in the South, especially in Alabama. But in the long run, I’d like to have my own business.

What makes Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences great?

Everybody’s been super accessible. The biggest thing I notice at Auburn are the resources we have at a big university like this. It’s unbelievable what you have access to as a student. I can’t think of another school that has some of the things we have: the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center, the resources we have on campus, and the people we have access to.

— Francesca Tully |

356 graduate degrees to be awarded at fall graduation

9 Dec

Auburn University will award 356 graduate degrees during the university’s two graduation ceremonies Saturday, Dec. 13, in Auburn Arena.

Of the degrees to be awarded, 270 are master’s degrees, 77 are doctorates and nine are education specialist degrees.

Jim Voss, former NASA astronaut and Auburn alumnus, will be the speaker at the commencement ceremonies.

Click here to read the full story.

Take 5 with Ryan McGehee

10 Nov

Ryan McGehee, a master’s student in Biosystems Engineering and a Graduate Student Ambassador, is featured in this week’s Take 5.
Click here to read the interview with Ryan:

Civil Engineering doctoral student awarded Airport Cooperative Research Program fellowship

11 Sep

Benjamin Bacon, doctoral student in Auburn University’s Department of Civil Engineering, is on the right track to produce findings to better analyze travel behavior. Bacon was granted one of 10 Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) Graduate Research Award Fellowships, an honor sponsored by the Transportation Research Board and the Federal Aviation Administration and administered through the ACRP.

Over the next year, he will work with Jeffrey LaMondia, assistant professor of civil engineering, and two mentors assigned by the program to develop a model using data from the 2013 Longitudinal Survey of Overnight Travel that better predicts the behavior of a traveler.

Bacon’s approach will consider multiple trips over a year, rather than singular events as in past research.

Read the full story here.

Acquah receives first place at Forest Products Society International Convention

8 Sep

Gifty Acquah, a graduate student in the School of Forestry and Wildlife at Auburn University, was recently awarded first place in the poster competition at the Forest Products Society’s 68th International Convention held Aug. 10-13 in Quebec City, Canada. The convention was organized around the theme “Rediscovering wood for Construction, the Economy and Environment and Energy.” Acquah’s poster was one of more than forty student posters showcased at the event.

Acquah’s research focused on rapidly characterizing the properties of forest biomass, with the goal of making this resource a viable feedstock for the emerging bioeconomy. Using analytical tools, she analyzed the chemical composition and thermal reactivity properties of biomass. Models from this study should be able to rapidly predict the properties of similar biomass types.