Friday, 24 June 2016 02:44

A Tiny Zika Laboratory

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Published in Zika Diaries
Audrey Warren (left) and Amy Rosenfeld (right) in the Racaniello laboratory. They surround stacks of Zika virus plaque assay plates, which they produce at a prodigious rate. Audrey Warren (left) and Amy Rosenfeld (right) in the Racaniello laboratory. They surround stacks of Zika virus plaque assay plates, which they produce at a prodigious rate.

So far in this series I’ve written a good deal about our work on Zika virus, but I have said little about the people who are doing the science. 

My lab at Columbia University Medical Center is very small, consisting of three people—Amy Rosenfeld, Audrey Warren, and me. Let me tell you about Amy and Audrey.

Amy Rosenfeld obtained her Ph.D. in my laboratory during the 1990s, working on hepatitis C virus. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at McGill University, she was not able to fulfill her goal, to be a principal investigator in an academic laboratory. The main problem was that she did not have an experimental system, supported by journal publications, that she could use to establish her own laboratory. 

A few years ago I suggested that Amy work in my laboratory and produce the necessary body of work that she would need to secure a faculty position. The only problem was that I had no money for her salary—at the time, I had two Ph.D. students in my laboratory and could not afford another person. Nevertheless, Amy moved to New York and began working without pay. When enterovirus D68 caused a substantial outbreak in the US in 2014, we started working on the virus. Amy secured NIH funding to identify the cell receptor for this virus and finally could be paid as an Associate Research Scientist, a non- tenure-track position. Shortly thereafter my two Ph.D. students finished their work, freeing up more funds for our research.

Amy had been making good progress on identifying the cell receptor for enterovirus D68 when Zika virus burst onto the virology scene in 2015. As I documented in the first article in this series (Moving to Zika Virus), we decided to begin work on that virus.

After a few months of working on two viruses it became clear that Amy would need help, so we decided to hire a research technician. We placed advertisements and interviewed several candidates.

Audrey Warren had just graduated from Columbia University in May, where she had taken my undergraduate virology course. She was working at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York when she saw our advertisement for a research technician. Taking my course had instilled in her a curiosity about viruses, so she applied for the position. Now Audrey is with us, working on Zika virus. She is interested in a research career, but wants to work in a laboratory to make sure it suits her. Great idea—it’s also what I did when I graduated from college!

Together Amy and Audrey are tackling Zika virus. As I’ve documented in these diaries, it’s not been easy, and we are scooped regularly by larger groups who can move faster than we can. But we think we can identify important problems and make a contribution to the field. In the process, Amy hopes to publish enough work to allow her to secure a faculty position. She is certainly deserving of one—she works 7 days a week, reads more than anyone I have known, and is full of great experimental ideas. Audrey is lucky to be working with Amy—she’ll learn a great deal and should be able to publish her work.

That’s my laboratory: Amy, Audrey, and me. It’s not the fewest I’ve ever had in the lab; in September 1982, when I arrived at Columbia from my postdoctoral work, it was just me. We’re hoping to grow a little bit more, because there is a lot of work to do, far more than two people can handle. 

Now you know who does the work that I describe in the Zika Diaries.

Last modified on Friday, 24 June 2016 16:08
Vincent Racaniello

Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D. is Professor of Microbiology at Columbia University Medical Center. As principal investigator of his laboratory, he oversees the research that is carried out by Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows. He also teaches virology to graduate students, as well as medical, dental, and nursing students.

Vincent entered the world of social media in 2004 with virology blog, followed by This Week in Virology. Videocasts of lectures from his undergraduate virology course are on iTunes University and virology blog. You can find him on WikipediaTwitter, Facebook, and Instagram. His goal is to be Earth’s virology professor. In recognition of his contribution to microbiology education, he was awarded the Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education by the Society for General Microbiology. His Wildy Lecture provides an overview of how he uses social media for science communication.