Written by Bethany Adamec
Sameer Shaikh was helping his mother, a physician, transcribe notes in the clinic when he learned about a patient with cystic fibrosis who was suffering from an infection of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. He didn’t know what this bacterium was, and his mother explained that it’s ubiquitous in nature. “Ok,” Sameer thought, “If it’s everywhere, then why isn’t it affecting me?” His curiosity about microbiology was sparked, and with his mother’s encouragement, he started to read about cystic fibrosis, Pseudomonas, and immunology. A researcher at his school, Florida International University (FIU), was studying P. aeruginosa, and Sameer began working in Dr. Kalai Mathee’s lab, first just helping out where needed. After six months, he learned of a potential project involving whole-genome sequencing that he was especially interested in, and he was able to begin a research project. Ultimately, Sameer became an ASM Undergraduate Research Fellow.
Sameer and Dr. Mathee developed a novel way to assemble bacterial whole-genome sequences and then compared the genome of a highly antibiotic-resistant strain of P. aeruginosa to those of other strains, identifying parts of the genome in their study strain that are unique. They found that their study strain was actually pan-resistant, or resistant to all antibiotics. “That was a jaw-dropping moment,” says Sameer. He realized that they were working with a superbug. Now, he and Dr. Mathee are working on a rapid diagnostic tool to identify resistance in infectious strains, so that clinicians can better target antibiotic therapy. This would allow infections to be better treated and help to reduce the development of additional antibiotic resistance.
Without his mother’s encouragement, Sameer says that he might never have gotten interested in biology in general or microbiology in particular. Sameer had been spending a lot of time helping out at the gas station his father managed. “My mom got angry that I was constantly working at the gas station helping my dad. She was like, ‘You’re going to come into the clinic with me and help me dictate and type notes’ ”, Sameer said. He knew that he wanted to make an impact with his future career, and saw an opportunity helping in the clinic.
Sameer heard about the ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship (URF) Program at an ASM conference on Pseudomonas in 2015 that he attended with his lab. His department and mentor also shared information about the program with him. His father was sick at the time that applications were due for the fellowship, and Sameer was torn between applying and continuing his research, or working at the gas station to help his father. Ultimately, he was able to do the fellowship. “I don’t know if I would be in this situation where I want to become a clinical researcher, if it weren’t for the ASM fellowship,” says Sameer. He loves the freedom the URF afforded him, allowing him to remain in the lab over the summer and expand his initial project.
Now a senior at FIU, Sameer plans to continue his research for a year after graduation, and then apply to begin an M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. program. He wants a career researching infectious disease and pathology. He feels very thankful for the opportunities he’s been given and is excited for the future. He encourages fellow microbiology student to follow their curiosities, and apply for programs like the ASM URF.
The ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship provides a stipend for students to conduct full-time summer research at their home institutions with an ASM member, attend the Microbe Academy for Professional Development, and present their research results at ASM Microbe the following year (pending abstract acceptance). Applications are due February 15, 2017.
Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.