Newswise — In a time when most people are avoiding diseases like the plague, one West Virginia University biology student is pursuing them instead.

Oxford, Pennsylvania, native Jessica Towey researches in Assistant Professor of Biology Tim Driscoll’s laboratory, which studies vector-borne infectious diseases spread to humans by arthropods such as ticks, fleas and mosquitoes. Diseases spread this way account for nearly one-sixth of all infectious diseases worldwide.

Towey studies Rickettsia rickettsii, a pathogen that lives inside certain species of ticks. If those ticks bite humans, it spreads to them and causes Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever – a treatable but serious infection. Long term, she hopes to identify vaccine targets for the disease based on the interactions of the cells where it lives.

“I find this pathogen so fascinating because it lives inside of host cells,” she said. “It has to survive in those host cells to survive in a human or an animal and cause disease.” 

To enter host cells, the pathogen needs a key, which comes in the form of a protein.

“My project is focused on the interactions between Rickettsia rickettsii and the different host cells that it infects,” Towey said. “I’m examining the proteins that Rickettsia can use to adhere to and enter different cell types.” 

Towey has felt right at home at WVU since arriving for her first visit as a prospective Ph.D. student.

“During the interview, Professor Driscoll and I had a great connection, and I felt we would work well together. I met with some graduate students and several faculty members in the department and felt like I could connect with everyone,” Towey said. “The entire department seemed so welcoming and supportive. I knew this was a great university to attend for graduate school and to help me further my career and interests in pathogen research." 

Since beginning her graduate work in fall 2018, Towey has taught the Department of Biology’s living cell lab, an Honors College biology seminar and assisted with Driscoll’s bioinformatics lecture.

“The courses have all been drastically different in terms of teaching experiences,” Towey said. “They have all helped make me a stronger educator and just a stronger graduate student as a whole.”

After transitioning to a mostly virtual learning and research experience, Towey’s experience hasn’t been without challenges. She reflected on what life has been like since the pandemic began nearly one year ago.

“It definitely has been a struggle, as it has been for most students and faculty. Back in March (2020), we were growing active cell cultures. We had all these plans for research over the summer. Unfortunately, the labs had to shut down initially, so I had to freeze a lot of our cell cultures. I went back to my parents’ house in Pennsylvania just so I wasn’t alone in an apartment,” Towey said. “It was definitely hard trying to working toward research and reschedule all of our plans and keep reading papers, just trying to stay in that mindset of continuing research. It was pretty tough.”

Her biggest challenge to date was learning to teach a biology lab online in fall 2020.

“It’s been difficult to get to know the students. At least in my classes, most students have their cameras off. As a teaching assistant, I really feed off of facial expressions, nodding, the looks of fear or confusion. That was really tough in an online setting because I couldn’t see their faces,” Towey said. “I also put cheesy jokes and comics in my slides, but I couldn’t see the students laugh or react. It was hard to gauge if they were helping them and giving them a mental break.”

While teaching online was an adjustment, Towey shared she learned a lot from the experience.

“Students still took away a lot from the class. I talked to a few of my students afterward, and they understand the situation. They appreciate the effort that the teaching assistants and faculty have been putting in to make online learning just as efficient as in-person learning,” she said. “It’s been a lot of adjusting and learning how to function in this new environment, just working hard to communicate with students and other faculty.”

Towey’s advice for students or faculty struggling with online learning? Speak up.

“Being willing to ask for help is key. It is OK to reach out for help if you’re struggling mentally or just struggling with the situation. Be open and honest with faculty and your friends and build a support group,” Towey said. “The biggest thing I learned is that it’s difficult for me to work from home. I reached out and expressed my concerns to one of my advisers. She suggested getting an office space on campus. Now I do that, and I’m much more productive. That showed there is a support system through the department, and they are always willing to help. They are completely understanding of what we’re going through.”

Towey aspires to offer that same support to the undergraduate students she mentors.

“I’ve learned how important it is to have a support system in the lab. The undergraduate student I’ve been mentoring ­– we both went through the struggles of our cells not growing and things not going right in the lab after we reopened. Just having each other for reassurance has been really helpful,” she said. “Before the pandemic, I didn’t realize the importance of that lab support system. I like to put my headphones in and go right to work and just zone in on what I’m doing. I’ve realized it’s more important to talk through with your fellow lab members and spend time with them and tell them what you’re going through and have them talk to you, too. They truly do understand what you’re going through.” 

The Driscoll lab’s latest project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is examining the genetic characteristics of a species of Rickettsia (Rickettsia buchneri) that lives inside the black-legged tick, the same tick that also transmits Lyme disease. Driscoll hopes this work will inform the development of new therapuetics.

Rickettsia buchneri is a microbe that has never, as far as we know, been transmitted to humans or other animals. It’s passed from mother ticks through to their offspring. We don’t know much about what this microbe does for the tick or to the tick,” Driscoll said. “It could be a parasite stealing energy and other metabolites from the tick, or it might be providing some benefits to the tick. That’s what we see in other similar organisms. We’re interested in its potential to help the tick spread more widely than it currently does and thereby potentially spreading diseases.” 

Driscoll is seeking master’s and undergraduate biology students to work as research assistants on the two-year project, which kicked off in January 2021. Interested students can inquire at [email protected]

“Graduate students are key to our research lab. They design the experiments, troubleshoot problems, write papers and help write grant proposals,” Driscoll said. “They also help to mentor undergraduates. WVU has a really robust undergraduate research program. Graduate students play really a critical role of bringing undergraduates into the world of the lab, giving them the experience that they expect from the lab and helping them understand what research is all about. We would not function without our student researchers.”