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?
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.
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