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The Big Impact of Microscopic Research

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is becoming an increasingly concerning public health challenge around the globe. Biochemistry and molecular biology major Lilly McQueen ’19 is one of the students at Ursinus looking into potential ways to combat this dangerous health risk.

McQueen has been researching antibiotic resistance—and the use of nanotubes to combat it—since her sophomore year.

“Some people see attaching a nanotube onto an antibiotic as disguising it so that the two mechanisms won’t be able to recognize it and interact with it,” she says. “Essentially you stick a nanotube onto the antibiotic and hope that it stays in the cell and is unable to be modified.”

The research has been an ongoing collaboration between the biology and chemistry departments with Anthony Lobo, associate professor of biology, and Mark Ellison, professor of chemistry. McQueen is one of over 30 students to contribute to this research since it began in 2012.

“We have focused mainly on two antibiotics, tetracycline and erythromycin, and two bacteria, E. coli and Enterococcus. These bacteria resist the antibiotics in various ways, from pumping the antibiotic out as soon as it comes in, to blocking the antibiotic from reaching its target,” says Lobo. “We are interested in seeing what happens to this resistance when the antibiotic is stuck on to a nanotube. By doing this we may learn something new about how antibiotic resistance works, and maybe eventually make antibiotics that are ineffective because of resistance work again.”

On the chemistry side of things, Ellison and his research group work to attach different antibiotics to carbon nanotubes, while Lobo and his biology group provide various antibiotic-resistant bacteria to test the nanotubes’ effectiveness. Students from both groups contribute to each part of the project.

McQueen took an interest in microbiology and similar subjects at a young age, even collecting samples of bacteria from the environment for a middle school science fair. She titled her 7th grade project “Where the Wild Things Are” and spent the following years interested in biology and toxicology. They are topics she learned a lot about from her mother, who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency.

McQueen has always been drawn to strange or even dangerous materials, finding them fascinating to work with.

“I really enjoy thrilling topics and the adrenaline rush they give me,” says McQueen. “Maybe not everyone sees that working with bacteria and nanomaterials can be as thrilling as climbing a mountain is, but I do. I climb mountains too, and I get the same kind of rush out of both of them.”

For McQueen, the topic of antibiotic resistance was a perfect fit and getting to work with the materials she had heard about growing up was exciting. She took her passion and continued to advance it at Ursinus.

“Lilly has done so much to move this work forward because she is fearless about trying things in the lab. She obviously thinks and reads a lot about antibiotic resistance, and tells me about things that I may not have heard about,” says Lobo. “She works very hard in the lab, not only on the project itself, but in mentoring new students who join the project. She has done a lot to give the students who come after her a launching point for finding additional interesting stuff.”

McQueen’s passion for the project has even led to a presentation at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia during their annual undergraduate research symposium. Representing Ursinus, McQueen presented a poster about the antibiotic-resistance research to local peers and colleagues.

In the future, McQueen wants to earn a Ph.D. in molecular microbiology and continue working on research. Her goals are to work on more antibiotic drug discovery or modifications for already known antibiotics. She has been offered a job at the United States Department of Agriculture and will be work there as a lab technician following graduation. –By Mary Lobo ’15