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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 |


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.

Applications for AURIC Graduate Fellowships being accepted

12 Aug

The Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer, AURIC, invites current Auburn University graduate students in good standing and with a research interest in cancer to apply for AURIC Graduate Fellowships in Cancer Research.

The student must be enrolled in, or in the process of enrolling in a doctoral degree program. The fellowship will provide one year of stipend support at the rate of $20,196 per year. The fellowship is competitively renewable for a total of up to three years, however renewal requires demonstration of acceptable progress towards the desired graduate degree and continued work in cancer research.

Applications must be received at by 5 p.m. Aug. 29. The applicant and the applicant’s mentor must be a member of AURIC; if not, they may join concurrently with the application. The application should include a biosketch or curriculum vitae; a two-page (maximum length) letter indicating the laboratory where the research will be performed, the research project and the applicant’s interest in cancer research; and a letter of support from the applicant’s faculty mentor.

Take 5 with master’s student Dori Weldon

11 Aug

Dori Weldon, a master’s student in the College of Education, is featured in this week’s Take 5. Read the interview with her here.

Master’s student awarded prestigious James Madison Fellowship

7 Jul

Erica Marie Vatella

Erica Marie Vatella, pursuing her master’s degree at Auburn University in secondary social science education, was recently awarded a James Madison Memorial Foundation Fellowship. The fellowship assists teachers earning a master’s degree with a focus on Constitutional studies.

Named for James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and the acknowledged “Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” the fellowship is funding up to $24,000 of Vatella’s graduate studies.

The award goes to just one outstanding student in each state and supports the graduate study of American history by aspiring and experienced secondary school teachers of American history, American government and social studies. To read more, go to the website.