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Research opportunities enable IU School of Medicine-NW students to make breakthroughs while learning

Meagan King takes second prize in research competition; her work contributes to a body of knowledge with the potential to save lives


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Erika Rose
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Charles Sheid
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The virulence of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, and especially MRSA (methicillin resistant S. aureus), is of great concern to a great many people. These “superbugs,” as they are commonly known, are complicated, researchers say, with no vaccine available because of the amazing ability of the bacterium to adapt and resist drug therapy.

The more researchers uncover about the existence of this microscopic survivor, the closer the medical community can get to developing a way to combat it.

Meagan King, a second-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine – Northwest (IUSM-NW), made such strides in research on the genetic makeup of this bacterium this summer that she was awarded a $5,000 second-place research prize. King was one of 30 students across the IUSM system who competed in the Student Research Program in Academic Medicine (SRPinAM) competition in Indianapolis in October.

Under the guidance of Taeok Bae, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and immunology and principal investigator for the ongoing research project, King spent 40-plus hours in the microbiology lab at the Gary campus as part of the Student Summer Research Internship Program.  Now in its 15th year, the program affords undergraduate, medical, and high school students opportunities to work side-by-side in biomedical research laboratories with nationally and internationally recognized IUSM faculty members.

With Bae as a mentor, King performed experiments to find out how the actual physical proteins of this bacterium’s two-component system fit together – something that has not been done before, King said. Though guided through the process, King said she was allowed to take the reins, make decisions and really own the experiment. As a result, she said, the data she presented at the competition was hers alone.

“I was really proud because I got three really clear pieces of data that told us something very new about how the whole system fits together,” King said.

In mice, King explained, 90 percent of those given the S. aureus bacteria died within 36 hours, but when a mutant form was developed without the protein system that King researched, only 10 percent died over 72 hours.

This provides hope, King explained, that a synthetic molecule could someday be developed that would replicate this action of “turning itself off,” so that “if someone does have this bacterium, you can’t give them a vaccine, but you could give them something that could increase the survival rate to 90 percent,” she said.

“The experience made me realize how much it takes to really be a researcher and how much I was really capable of,” King said.

Born in Louisville, Ky. and raised in Evansville, Ind., King currently lives in the medical student housing in Gary. She majored in Russian at Arizona State University and studied abroad before enrolling in medical school. She is interested in the specialties of neurosurgery and otolaryngology.

King’s experience in the microbiology lab is only one example of research projects in which medical students are regularly immersed during their studies at IUSM-NW.

Other ongoing research projects are related to the effects of obesity and aging on muscle biology; methods to stimulate corneal nerve regeneration after eye injuries; eye disorders caused by impaired calcium metabolism; the role of neurochemicals in Parkinson’s and neuropsychiatric diseases; and others.   Depending on the nature of the project, students perform experiments using state-of-the-art techniques in the fields of cell biology, molecular biology, cell and tissue culture, neuroscience, immunohistochemistry, or a host of other disciplines. 

IUSM-NW student interns are immersed for eight to 10 weeks in all facets of biomedical research, including, literature review, experimental design, data acquisition and analysis, trouble-shooting, and preparation of supportive images and graphs.