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Senior Katie Schrack of Mill Hall, Pa., is examining the relationship between mercury pollution and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a year-long research project at Lafayette.

Her honors thesis builds on EXCEL Scholars research she conducted in summer 2001 at Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y., under the direction of Laurie Caslake, assistant professor of biology. In Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars program, students work closely with faculty on research while earning a stipend.

The project was funded this summer by a prestigious Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the American Society for Microbiology. A neuroscience major, Schrack presented her EXCEL findings last year at the organization’s 102nd General Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“This spring in Washington, D.C., I will present my work at the ASM meeting again,” says Schrack, who also taught Spanish to elementary school children through an internship this fall. “Also, in several weeks, Dr. Caslake and I will be traveling to present my work at Drexel College of Medicine’s Research Day. It’s very satisfying to produce results, and to share those results with others interested in this area of research will be great.”

“Katie was one of only 26 students nationwide to receive a National Research Fellowship,” says Caslake, Schrack’s thesis advisor. “This is a notable accomplishment, and she’s done exceptional work.”

Since joining the Lafayette faculty in fall 1999, Caslake has mentored 11 students in research projects, some of which have been presented at academic conferences. She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals and has received grants from several sources, including National Science Foundation.

“Some bacteria that occur naturally in water and soils have developed a resistance to antibiotics,” explains Caslake. “Researchers have conducted several studies on these resistant bacteria and suggest there is a correlation between mercury pollution and the organisms’ increasing resistance to antibiotics.”

Bacteria develop a resistance to environmental toxins and then share their DNA with one another. The bacteria adapt and are able to survive by acquiring genes that allow the resistance to toxins. The genes that allow growth in the presence of antibiotics are often near genes that allow growth in the presence of mercury, and together these genes are often found on mobile genetic elements.

Schrack’s investigation of the biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon has led to some “startling” revelations.

“Observing how easy it is for bacteria to transfer genes encoding resistance makes one understand how antibiotic misuse and overuse can contribute to serious health concerns,” she says. “I was amazed at how much antibiotic resistance I found in the lake bacteria, particularly to the antibiotic vancomycin, which doctors usually prescribe as a last-resort antibiotic when nothing else works.”

Her research inspired her to join the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics.

Schrack credits her mentor with guiding her through a series of projects that have culminated in her honors thesis.

“I have been working with Dr. Caslake since the summer before my junior year, and she has been an amazing mentor,” she says. “I love working with her, because she is constantly challenging me and encouraging me to take advantage of all opportunities available. In the lab, she is always available to help, even if it means I have to call her at home. Over the past few years, she has become a good friend as well as a mentor. I’m very thankful I had the opportunity to develop a close relationship with my professor.”

Admitting that she once had “a one-track mind” for medical school, Schrack credits this research project with widening her vision of science.

“Now that I’ve experienced research and learned of the new and wonderful work people are doing, not just in microbiology, but in medical research, I have expanded my interests to the research as well as clinical aspects of medicine,” she says.

She adds, “Lafayette is a wonderful academic environment for academic projects like my thesis. I chose to do a thesis because I was encouraged to start research and developed a close relationship with Prof. Caslake. At other schools, it may have been difficult to get to know my professors and work out schedules with them to do research, but Lafayette has been very accommodating in that respect.”

In addition to her scientific pursuits, Schrack is teaching Spanish to third graders during an internship at March Elementary School.

“I am teaching basic Spanish in fun ways, like singing songs and doing other activities,” she says. “I think teaching kids is an excellent way to earn my Spanish minor.”

Camille Qualtere, visiting assistant professor of foreign languages and literatures, is Schrack’s internship supervisor.

“She is helping me teach the language in fun and efficient ways,” says Schrack. “She has helped me design my lesson plans and provided me with a curriculum to teach the students.”

“Katie is very prepared and enthusiastic in her work,” says Qualtere. “This is a great way for her to reconcile academics with professional life experiences. She’s a delight as both a student and a teacher.”

For Schrack, the internship is another positive experience she has had at Lafayette.

“I want to emphasize how beneficial it is to have this real-life experience off-campus,” she says. “I never realized how difficult it would be to actually prepare for and teach a class. This is an amazing program that enhances my understanding of not only the foreign language, but also the difficulty of teaching Spanish to others. It’s great that Lafayette offers such intense and diverse opportunities.”

Last spring, Schrack traveled to London free of charge as a benefit of being a participant in Lafayette’s distinctive Marquis Scholars program. Selected from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars receive special financial aid and additional benefits, including distinctive educational experiences, cultural activities in major U.S. and Canadian cities, and mentoring programs with faculty.

While in London, Schrack interned with the National Health Service Confederation. She learned about the British healthcare system by attending meetings and brainstorming sessions, conducting research, and organizing seminars on orthopedic care and patient safety.

Schrack is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Senior Class Fund Drive Committee, and Lafayette Society for Neuroscience. She also plays club and intramural soccer.

Categorized in: Academic News