Future innovator feted with Governor’s award

Future innovator feted with Governor’s award

November 12, 2015

November 12, 2015

Rebecca Jernigan, a freshman microbiology major at Arizona State University, received a Future Innovators of the Year Award for research she performed at the Biodesign Institute and the School of Molecular Sciences. She was selected to be one of four Arizona students receiving the honor, based on successful science fair projects each completed as high school students.

The winners were chosen by the Arizona Technology Council and presented their awards at the 2015 Governor's Celebration of Innovation on Thursday, November 12th.

Jernigan became interested in studying viruses after being told by her high school biology teacher that viral infections are untreatable. As she recalls, “I thought, ‘Well, if you can’t do it, it would make for an interesting science fair project.’”

Jernigan decided she wanted to test a simpler and safer method of combating viruses by targeting the invaders before they ever have a chance to infect cells.

Traditional viral treatments rely on either blocking cell receptors to keep viruses from entering cells or cleaving viral genetic material within infected cells. Such methods are complex and have the potential to cause serious side effects because they alter cells in the body in order to protect them from viruses.

Jernigan predicted that proteases, molecular scissors that can bind and cleave specific proteins on viruses, would be able to prevent viruses from infecting cells and replicating.

Armed with an innovative idea and the motivation to prove that it is possible to disable viruses before they strike, all she needed was a chance to implement her experiment.

She found her opportunity in the lab of researcher Petra Fromme, Ph.D., who directs the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and specializes in solving the structure and function of membrane proteins. After learning about Jernigan's proposal, Fromme was interested and willing to provide the resources and guidance that could make her idea a reality.

“This was a completely new idea of how to potentially attack viral proteins,” Fromme explained, “The idea was from her. We offered her possibilities to work with our cutting edge biochemical and biophysical techniques to really work on the proteins.” Such possibilities allowed Jernigan to learn university level research skills while she was still in high school.

With her newfound abilities and the support of her parents, teachers, and mentors at the Biodesign Institute, Jernigan was finally able to perform her experiments. She decided to use the enzyme proteinase K to target a protein which is an essential part of the bacterial virus called bacteriophage T4 to see if she could validate her idea.

The experiment was a success. Jernigan was able to cleave the protein and neuter the virus, making it incapable of binding to other cells or spreading infection.

Although the experiment was just a first step, the idea that targeting specific proteins on the surface of viruses is a viable way of treating infection has incredible implications. Additional research based on Jernigan's methods could yield drugs with almost no side effects that halt the spread of infections, even infections by viruses that have previously been nearly impossible to treat.

Jernigan is continuing her work on viruses in Fromme's lab as a student at ASU, and she plans to go on to earn her Ph.D. in microbiology.

Her advice to other high school students who strive for innovation is to, “Just be creative. You don't have to do it the way everyone else has done it before. Just try something new, even if it's really crazy. If it doesn't work, just try it again.”

Resources for high school students interested in sharing their creativity or learning more about laboratory work in the Fromme lab or ASU are available at https://www.bioxfel.org/content/article/48 and https://eoss.asu.edu/summerenrichment/programs.


Written by: Katie Skerry