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Alexis Davison on becoming a Beckman Scholar
14 November 2019

alexis Davidson“Perhaps the greatest reward is the knowledge that Beckman products have contributed and are contributing to the benefit of mankind.”  Dr. Arnold O. Beckman’s quote embodies the character and motivation underlying his life devoted to science.  These values are now continuing to be exemplified through the Arnold & Mabel Beckman Foundation.  This philanthropic organization helps fund research endeavors for the advancement and well-being of society.  Its mission is to foster young minds in science, inventions, and projects, that have the potential to improve what we know about the world for problems such as diseases that hinder human health and quality of life.

It is an honor to have been selected to be a Beckman Scholar and become a member of such an organization where the promotion of discovery for the benefit of humanity remains at its core.  While this opportunity has provided funding for my research project for a 15-month period, it has provided me with an experience of a lifetime.  This is invaluable. I am indebted to the BMB department here at Penn State for providing this opportunity to its students and am grateful to Dr. Kenneth Keiler and all laboratory members who encouraged me to apply and participate in the Beckman Scholar program.  

Our research in the Keiler Lab focuses on understanding and combatting aspects of a global phenomenon: antibiotic resistance.  In 2016’s Review on Antibiotic Resistance, it was estimated that this phenomenon will lead to more deaths than cancer, 10 million annually, by the year 2050.  It is evident that the urgency for more scientific research is crucial.  This can only be sustained through financial support and accomplished through dedication of researchers across the world.  The Beckman Foundation’s support of my research enables me to be a part of such a movement.  The powerful reality of such a human dilemma is the result of deadly bacterial infections not responding to treatment. Antibiotics, drugs used to kill or prevent the growth of certain bacteria, are the most regularly prescribed drugs in human medicine.  This overuse has contributed to the phenomenon of bacteria developing ways to overcome the killing mechanisms of antibiotics.  Throughout this process, bacterial pathogens have become capable of surviving, proliferating, and spreading their resistant mechanisms.  Therefore, a focus of developing new potential antibiotics targeting new molecular components is a major priority in research against all pathogens listed by the World Health Organization such as M. tuberculosis (MTB).

The Keiler lab has been part of this movement to combat antibiotic resistance with recent studies focusing on identifying and characterizing drug candidates that act as inhibitors to a specific, essential process in many bacterial pathogens: trans-translation.  This pathway, not found in human cells, provides bacteria with a method of rescuing ribosomes from nonstop complexes that occur when no stop codon is present at the 3’ end of a messenger RNA during translation, ultimately leading to the degradation of tagged proteins to promote survival.  Even though much research had discovered key components of trans-translation, all aspects underlying these mechanisms have yet to be uncovered. For example, investigation about features such as the conditions relating to the initiation of trans-translation and studies exploring whether or not the formation of nonstop complexes is dependent on specific genetic sequences are being explored through ribosome profiling.  Throughout the next several months, acquiring insight into this process will increase our understanding of unknown components of trans-translation, a novel antibiotic target.  The significance of a new target decreases the probability of pre-existing resistance mechanisms in pathogen strains. These experiments will provide crucial insight into the step-by-step mechanisms of trans-translation which could have incredible implications for future therapeutic targeting of this pathway.

Becoming a Beckman Scholar has not only granted me the privilege of seeking tangible answers to difficult questions, it has also motivated me to seek ways to grow in leadership within the movement to combat antibiotic resistance and learn more about this from various perspectives additional to my experimental approaches.  I have been seeking out how this phenomenon is currently being addressed in environments such as clinics, doctor offices, and hospitals, particularly in Pennsylvania.  Despite a monumental effort, the research cannot achieve the same progression rate as the bacteria.  Therefore, it is essential that medical precautions are simultaneously implemented across the globe to slow down the spread of resistance.  Acquiring information pertaining to physician-patient approaches will enable me to gain an enhanced understanding of this problem from a new standpoint allowing me to apply what I am learning through my project to “real-time” situations in clinic. 

Furthermore, becoming a Beckman Scholar has provided me access to a network of outstanding individuals that form a scientific community rooted in the altruistic values that drove Dr. Beckman’s efforts.  I have already had the privilege of meeting fellow Beckman scholars, postdoctoral fellows, young investigators, and other foundation members, from all over the U.S. at the 2019 Beckman Symposium this past August.  Interacting with countless individuals about their efforts in research and experiences was priceless.  Observing so many individuals motivated to discover the unknown, solve problems, and promote the well-being of mankind proved to be enlightening and inspiring.  Communication within the scientific community across fields is essential for the advancement of discovery.  Even the topic of antibiotic resistance cannot be solved by research alone without collaboration.  I am certain that participating in the Beckman Scholar’s program will enable me to continue to present essential knowledge to the scientific community, develop new technical, professional skills, learn from my colleagues, and grow to be a scientist who can one day be a leader of efforts analyzing problems where communication and perseverance within the biomedical community are needed to achieve a healthier society through saving lives.  

Communications Coordinator, BMB Department