BMMB Features: Molly Rathbun
The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) Department is fortunate to have a multitude of exceptional graduate students within its Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program dedicated to developing their research and teaching skills. Our students are making discoveries and generating independent knowledge through their research within our labs.
Meet Molly Rathbun, a graduate student working towards her Ph.D. in the BMMB Program. Molly doesn’t have that “one moment” that set her upon the path to science. Instead, she has always had an insatiable curiosity about how the world works, and science has always given her the opportunity to ask question.
Molly’s curiosity led her to attend the University of Connecticut (UConn) where she earned both her Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biological Sciences as well as her Bachelor’s of the Arts degree in Anthropology. After graduating from UConn, she chose Penn State to continue her education due to the University’s vast resources and focus on interdisciplinary sciences.
It is important to note that Molly did not originally come to Penn State as a BMMB Graduate student. At first, she came to the University as a graduate student within the Forensic Science Program where she worked under the guidance of Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Forensic Science, Mitchell Holland. There she developed her skills as a criminalist and focused her research on the study of human identification from damaged and degraded samples. During that time, she was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel both nationally and internationally to present her work. These experiences further exposed Molly to the exciting world of research and developed her desire to continue her graduate education.
It was this that brought Molly to the BMMB Program, where she wanted to focus her research on comparative genomics and bioinformatics. Currently, she works under the guidance of Associate Professor of Biology, and of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Moriah Szpara, and investigates virus DNA sequiences in order to track events that occur during infection. “I've never been good at doing just one type of science,” said Molly. “I enjoy studying scientific problems from the perspective of different fields.”
Molly’s investigation specifically focuses on the evolution of Herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV-1. HSV-1 is a virus that most people are familiar with, as it is a human pathogen that causes cold sores, and is a sexually transmitted disease. Like all viruses, HSV-1 genomes mutate over time and it is this evolution that Molly seeks to understand.
In collaboration with Dr. Christine Johnston at the University of Washington, Molly is sampling virus from patients throughout the course of their infection. Using high-throughput sequencing and genome assembly protocols to examine each patient’s HSV-1 genome, she is looking for both similarities and differences across multiple sampling time periods. These differences could indicate that the virus is undergoing evolutionary adaptations.
Viruses can evolve while they infect a patient, as well as while being transmitted between patients. Although some viruses evolve faster than others, the end result remains the same, with the right mutation leading to a new beneficial trait. When virus infections are treated with vaccines and antivirals, the hope is that the infection will be cleared. Unfortunately, sometimes the virus evolves to develop a resistance to the treatment. This evolution is a common problem among HSV antivirals, with the pre-existing variability amongst HSV-1 genomes posing a similar challenge for vaccine development. By studying HSV-1’s genome evolution in real-time from patients, Molly believes she can better understand how the virus will attempt to outcompete antivirals and can contribute towards the development of vaccines that are effective against all HSV-1 infections.
“We’ve made several useful observations so far that would not have been possible without studying samples directly from patients,” says Molly. One such observation has been that each HSV-1 patient’s infection has had a unique genome, meaning that vaccines have to be carefully, and specifically, developed so that they will be effective across all infections. Moreover, Molly is beginning to observe that perhaps HSV-1 evolves more often than was previously thought. Molly believes this observation might help to explain why infection outcomes can be so different between patients.
Outside of her research, Molly enjoys spending her time participating in service and outreach activities. Molly is active in working with groups such as Graduate Women in Science, the BMMB Graduate Student Association, both Eberly College of Science’s and the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department’s Climate and Diversity Committees, and the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics Graduate Student Association. As part of these groups she has coordinated many activities including science demonstrations at local elementary schools, moderating diversity panels focused on issues in STEM, and helping to organize conferences. “There’s always plenty to do and we always could use more volunteers!” says Molly.
Molly is extremely passionate when it comes to the topic of diversity, a passion that ultimately led to her involvement with Graduate Women in Science. “Getting involved with GWIS was probably one of the best decisions I made early on in graduate school,” says Molly. “It’s such a great community of young scientists to work with and learn from.” While many STEM fields still suffer from lack of diversity, Molly believes things are getting better, and says there is still a lot of work to be done.
In addition to her service and outreach activities, Molly is also an avid runner. Most weekends she can usually be found either running or hiking in many of the local state parks with her dog, Ghost. She participated in her first marathon in the Fall of 2018 and says it was an amazing experience. “I love the longer distances,” says Molly. “The physical challenge is always fun, but I think the mental aspect is a big draw for me because it teaches you so much about yourself.” Over the past year, she has been transitioning to more trail running and is currently training for her first 50k ultra-marathon.
Like so many of our graduate students, Molly displays a high level of dedication to her academic achievement and pursuit towards scientific discovery. It is this dedication coupled with her desire to be actively engaged in the communities in which she is a part that truly makes her a shining example among students. We are very proud to have her as a part of our team, and look forward to following her career and future discoveries closely!