Dr. Michael Price and Hannah Berguson
Name: Michael S. Price, Ph.D.
School: Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine
Department: Molecular and Cellular Sciences
What is your research focus?
Cryptococcus neoformans is the leading cause of fungal meningitis that is responsible for 15% of AIDS-related deaths worldwide and was recently identified as a critical research priority by the World Health Organization. Prior studies have shown how important carbon metabolism and pH regulation are for virulence at different host body sites. The long-term goal of my research program is to understand how pH regulation and carbon metabolism in a pathogen influence its interactions with its host.
Currently, we are seeking to characterize the genes and pathways that are vital for establishment of infection by C. neoformans in the context of carbon acquisition. Specifically, we are investigating the genes responsible for influencing the interaction of C. neoformans with host immunity. This project is significant because it will provide understanding of the host-pathogen interactions that encourage infection by C. neoformans in susceptible individuals and promote the development of significant additional models for studying infection in a critical fungal pathogen.
How did your mentorship play a role in the research process?
I have been truly blessed by God in the opportunities I have had to mentor students in research. My student mentees gain valuable experience in microbiology and molecular biology, and engage with members of the scientific community in collaborative efforts. During my postdoctoral training at Duke University, I supervised numerous students and visiting scholars, many
of whom published research manuscripts on our work. Furthermore, during my tenure at Liberty University I have mentored numerous undergraduate and graduate/medical students in research. These students have presented their work annually at the Virginia Academy of Science meetings and the Big South Undergraduate Research Symposium, as well as the internationally attended Fungal Genetics Conference. Past student mentees have been awarded two Virginia Academy of Science Undergraduate Research Awards and two Provost Award for Research Excellence grants in support of our work. While these past accomplishments by my students have been wonderful to facilitate, I very much look forward to what God has in store next for our team.
What impact will this research have on your field?
Our research has potentially huge impacts in the prevention and treatment of cryptococcal disease through understanding the genetic regulation of carbon acquisition in a critical human pathogenic yeast and the understanding of the genes involved in communication between host and pathogen during infection. The ability of Cryptococcus to cause death is mostly due to its ability to migrate to and survive in the brain. By investigating the impact of carbon metabolism on the yeast’s communication with the immune system, we hope to identify critical areas that can be exploited for novel therapies and prevent the movement of Cryptococcus to this vital organ.
What is the most exciting or rewarding part of the mentorship process?
Research is a fundamental aspect of science education. More than just memorizing facts about the universe, scientific study is intrinsically fused with the methods and means by which we uncover those facts. Research grants my students the opportunity to realize the practical application of the information they learn in class. Seeing how the scientific enterprise is conducted gives them a deeper appreciation of the knowledge they’ve learned, and a greater respect for those individuals who pushed back the boundaries of ignorance as they discovered “God’s thoughts after Him”.
I also learn from my students as they become more independent and investigate topics on their own, asking questions that I may not have considered. This mutualism culminates in their eventual graduation and transition into the next phase of their journey, even as lifelong learners beyond formal education. Knowing that I had a part to play in their development as scientists is one of the most rewarding aspects to teaching at Liberty University.
Name: Hannah Berguson
Mentor: Dr. Michael Price
What is your research project?
We are studying a fungal pathogen called Cryptococcus neoformans, which causes meningitis, mainly in people who are immunocompromised. Specifically, we are investigating how Cryptococcus gets its nutrition and survives in a human host. We have mutant strains of Cryptococcus with certain metabolic genes removed to see how they interact with our immune system. We have used mice models to study this, as well as in vitro models.
How did you get involved in research with a faculty mentor?
An experience that jumpstarted my involvement in research was finding a research mentor. I was paired with an experienced student researcher who let me shadow her research a little and taught me about what she was doing. This made me want to seek out my own research project to work on, and I had heard about Dr. Price’s research through meetings on campus like Scientific Research Society and Pre-Med Honor Society. I thought it sounded exciting, so during my sophomore year I asked Dr. Price if I could learn more about his research and join his team. I got to work with a senior in his lab who helped me so much, and I have been with the team since then.
What impact will this research have on your future academic and professional opportunities?
Research has been valuable for me in so many ways. Most obviously, I have learned more about this really interesting human pathogen than I ever would have without this experience. But one of the most important aspects for me has been learning to problem-solve. So much of research is troubleshooting, finding solutions to problems that you did not anticipate. This is so crucial in medicine. Patients come in with problems that do not have clear solutions, and it requires problem-solving skills. Additionally, I have been able to present my research at meetings and hone my teaching and public speaking skills.
What is the most exciting and/or rewarding aspect of your undergraduate research experience?
Attending and presenting at meetings has been a really exciting part of research. It is very rewarding to synthesize the work that you have done into a short presentation and get to explain it to others. It is especially exciting when other people are interested in your work, and you have a connection to what they are working on. Then you get to learn what other researchers in your field are discovering, and it can help your own work.
What advice would you give a student who is considering getting involved in undergraduate research?
If you are interested in research, find a project that excites you and commit yourself to it. Research takes time and passion. I think you can learn the most if you stick with one project for a couple years or so and just dive into it and learn as much as you can.