November 20, 2018 - Victoria Bonnell, a second-year graduate student in the 2018 BMMB Program and member of the Llinás Lab, was awarded the Best Poster Award at the XXIX International Molecular Parasitology Meeting (MPM) held on September 9th – 13th in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The meeting is the premiere event for scientists from around the world who conduct research in the field of parasitology. In attendance were Manuel Llinás, his postdoctoral and graduate students, and members of the Lindner Lab. Hundreds of posters were presented at the meeting with only six individuals receiving awards.
Bonnell grew up in Doylestown (Bucks County, Pennsylvania), and attended elementary and middle school there before moving to Charlotte, North Carolina to complete high school. A career in science was not her initial plan as she originally planned to pursue her interest in becoming an oboist. Upon graduating high school, she attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and decided to pursue her newly realized passion, science, and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, with a concentration in Cellular Physiology.
While at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Bonnell engaged in research involving parasitology, focusing heavily on malaria epidemiology. Upon researching universities with a strong malaria focus, Penn State’s BMMB Program immediately appealed to her, as she continued to have a special place in her heart for Penn State given her time spent in Pennsylvania when she was young. Bonnell immediately felt that Penn State was the place for her, the place that would allow her to grow and achieve her personal goals and aspirations.
Her love of science is evident to anyone around her. “It’s the experiments and gaining an understanding as to how things work that fascinates me,” she says. Her goals are clear as she would like to complete her Ph.D, eventually become a professor at a university, and become a mentor like the many who have mentored her over the years. Giving back and helping others is important to Bonnell and she takes every opportunity to mentor others, serving as a BMMB mentor for first-year graduate students.
In the lab, Bonnell works under the direction of Dr. Manuel Llinás, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. Her research focuses on a family of proteins that are found in the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. These proteins, called transcription factors, bind to the DNA of the Plasmodium genome, regulating parasite development throughout its different life cycle stages in the blood, mosquito, and liver. Normally, proteins within this family, comprised of 27 members, bind to specific sequences within the DNA. Bonnell is investigating a group of four proteins within this family that all bind to the same “CACACA” DNA sequence. Her research will focus on determining whether these proteins bind to different regions of the parasite genome at different stages of the life cycles. To do this, she will use a variety of different techniques to identify where each of these four proteins is binding and how they achieve this differential specificity. Understanding these proteins is paramount because of their importance to the development of the parasite. By learning more about these proteins and the parasite’s biology, she hopes to identify targets in the parasite for future drug therapeutics. Additionally, this family of proteins the Llinás Lab is researching is especially interesting because they are plant-derived and are not found in humans. This is important because if these proteins were targeted by drugs, there may be little to no side effects for humans.
During her Ph.D. thesis project, Bonnell will define whether these proteins are essential to the parasite. In other words, she will determine whether or not the parasites continue to grow if these proteins are deleted? Second, she seeks to characterize the pathways these are regulated by these proteins and determine their importance to parasite development. The project is unique in that it approaches these questions from a gene regulation viewpoint to understand why these proteins are binding to different regions, as well as from a parasitology perspective to understand the importance of these proteins in Plasmodium development.
To enhance her experience at Penn State, Bonnell has joined the Eukaryotic Gene Regulation graduate training program that was recently funded through the National Institutes of Health. She will work closely with faculty that focus on model organism gene regulation so that she can apply new approaches to dissect Plasmodium biology. “That’s why I came to Penn State. To understand the gene regulation of this complex parasite that can live in the human liver, blood, and mosquito,” said Bonnell. “The fun part about Plasmodium is that it is so complex and very challenging to work with. Despite these challenges, it is very rewarding to conduct research in a parasite that effects millions of people worldwide every year.”
Congratulations to Victoria on receiving the Best Poster Award at the 2018 XXIX International Molecular Parasitology Meeting!