Postbac Spotlight—Mosquitos, Malaria, and Maggie

Maggie Smith presenting her research at the NIH Postbac Seminar Series in October 2019.

After graduating from Appalachian State University, I started as a postbaccalaureate fellow in the Malaria Immunology Section, I have been exposed to high-level techniques, resources, and equipment that were not available at the small university where I did my undergraduate degree. I have had the opportunity to attend numerous seminars, ranging from influenza research to the important role genetics will play in the future. I have had the honor to meet prominent scientists, such as the director of the CDC, Robert R. Redfield. I have met many amazing postbacs, postdocs, employees, and scientists at NIH who are great colleagues, friends, and hopefully future collaborators. When I started my postbac, I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in epidemiology. Working with Dr. Long has made me realize how much I enjoy genetics and benchwork—so much so that I have switched my career path and am currently applying to Ph.D. programs in molecular genetics. An advanced degree in genetics will allow me to focus on translational research, where I can use my background in basic science and clinical science to focus on gene therapy, diagnostic techniques, and vaccine development.

One of the areas where I was able to learn from Dr. Long is in the study of the sexual stage of malaria Plasmodium parasites. Although AP2-g transcription factor is known to be important for sexual stage commitment, it isn’t known which genes or gene expression profiles control the sexual assignment of gametocytes.

Dr. Long’s lab is addressing this question using two lines of P. falciparum NF54: SA and N1. N1 is a female gametocyte-dominated strain, with a female-to-male ratio of 15:1, while SA has a ratio of 2:1. Whole genomic sequencing and RNA sequencing were performed to determine the factors that contribute to the different sex ratios. We have identified with high confidence, through DNA-seq, five variants that are different between N1 and SA. Currently, we are analyzing our RNA-seq data to identify genes associated with the increased ratio of female gametocytes in the N1 strain. This should get us closer to identifying the genes or gene expression profiles responsible for the sexual assignment of gametocytes.

Using this knowledge, I hope to create a mechanism to inhibit those genes or gene expressions, interrupting the formation of either female or male gametocyte and stopping the parasite at the sexual stage. This will prevent transmission of malaria by ensuring that when a mosquito takes a blood meal it will only ingest one sex, which won’t reproduce.

After spending two years with Dr. Long, I have become a versatile and technically skilled researcher, and I am confident that my time spent at the NIH will be beneficial on my journey to a Ph.D. in genetics.  

For more information on the lifecycle of the malaria parasite and NIAID’s role in research, check out Malaria and Malaria Parasite, Mosquito, and Human Host.

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