Student Research Earns Oxford Praise

Three Concordia students have won praise for researching bacteria that cause meningitis as part of an international collaboration led by scientists at Oxford University, United Kingdom. Their goal is to find a new vaccine to fight the infection.

Working alongside their faculty mentor, Dr. Ellen Aho, professor of biology, are Corey Horien ’12, Thief River Falls, Minn., Lydia Stinar ’12, Fargo, N.D., and Stephen Rostad ’12, Kindred, N.D.

“This is a great opportunity,” says Horien. “It’s rare for undergraduates to be involved in a worldwide research project of this importance.”

Meningitis is a serious problem in many parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa. This potentially fatal infection of the brain is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis.

For Stinar, the project is a chance to gain experience in global health issues. “This is a field I want to work in and it’s a big help to see how a research project is organized and conducted,” she says.

“We are doing basic research on the genes that encode a bacterial protein called pilin,” says Rostad.

Pilin proteins make up hair-like fibers that help the bacteria attach to the human respiratory tract, from which the inflection can enter the bloodstream and eventually reach the brain.

The Concordia team receives DNA sequence information from the Oxford team and then analyzes the data using a variety of computer programs, a research approach known as bioinformatics. Aho and her students are part of a national effort sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology that is focused on involving undergraduate students in this cutting-edge field.

The Concordia team exchanges ideas with their collaborators at Oxford via Skype conferences on a regular basis, and their findings will be part of a new database developed at Oxford to help researchers share information worldwide.

Aho says the results of her team’s research support the conclusion that pilin proteins warrant further study as potential vaccine candidates.

“The Oxford team complimented our students for doing really excellent work that addresses an important global health problem,” says Aho.

Aho’s research with Neisseria is ongoing, and she will spend five weeks in April and May in England working alongside her collaborators at Oxford.