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Fighting Infectious Diseases

Jessica GullettA native of Texas, Jessica Gullett is graduating with her PhD in fall 2017. Her work focuses on deciphering how bacteria monitor their surroundings, including the characterization of a universal membrane protein that could represent a novel antimicrobial target. Bacterial antibiotic resistance is a growing global health concern because an increasing number of pathogenic bacterial strains have developed resistance to antibiotics, making treatment more invasive and costlier for patients. Various clinically relevant antibiotics used to treat pathogenic bacteria specifically target bacterial membranes.

Membranes, which form barriers between the inside of the cells and the outside environment, are essential to cell viability. Jess identified a protein that contributes to the cell’s ability to modulate its membrane’s permeability to various molecules and chemical agents. Because of its role in bacterial membrane permeability, this protein could be a potential drug target to aid efforts in the fight against antibiotic resistant “superbugs.”

Growing up, Jess was the model literary student, always excelling in English classes, but not really enjoying any of her science classes. Getting a PhD in a scientific discipline was not on her radar. A chance opportunity to participate in an undergraduate research project led her to discover she enjoyed the power of scientific inquiry and especially, how experimental design can lead to often unexpected yet insightful answers.

“Usually the answer you find leads to the next exciting question,” Jess says.

One of the exciting things she gets from her research is the challenge of continually reframing the research hypothesis as the results are obtained. This is an intellectual adventure where not two days are alike. Her doctoral work is a perfect example. She started working on a group of proteins that control how soil bacteria move about their environment and ended up working on a protein that is implicated in bacterial lipid metabolism and membrane fluidity.

Jess views her scientific contribution as a puzzle where each scientific discovery contributes a piece, of various size, to a big puzzle. As often said by other scientists who carry out basic research, the specific contribution of any finding and impact of any one’s research is often not obvious or fully realized immediately even by the researcher him/herself. The most valuable skill Jess gained through her research is the ability to think critically, which she hones daily, applies to all situations she faces, whether in the research lab or in her personal life.

After graduation, Jess will be moving to Memphis as she has accepted a postdoctoral position at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the Department of Infectious Diseases where she will continue to perform basic research that will be applied to a clinical setting.

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