Studying a Disease Across Disciplines
The average person likely wouldn’t understand the complex blend of math, computer modeling and biochemistry that goes into Erin Johnson’s research at the University of Idaho. But they would understand her goal: helping increase understanding of a dreaded disease.
“I could go home and tell my grandparents. I can say, ‘I’m working on Ebola,’” Johnson says.
Johnson, 21, a junior from Spokane, Washington, is majoring in chemical engineering in the UI College of Engineering and mathematics in the UI College of Science. But she studies Ebola in associate physics professor Marty Ytreberg’s lab through a UI program that encourages students to explore the intersections of math and biology.
Johnson was drawn to the project’s interdisciplinary nature and the opportunity to work on a topic important to her.
“I was interested because it was on Ebola,” she says. “It’s been in the news a lot, and it’s such a big issue, and there’s funding now to really be studying it.”
Ytreberg’s lab studies how the Ebola virus might change over time, and how those changes could affect efforts to create a vaccine or other treatments for the disease. Johnson focuses on a protein that helps form a protective covering on the virus.
She’ll present her work at the UI College of Science’s 11th annual Student Research Expo from 2:30-5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, in the Teaching and Learning Center west-side lounge areas.
Using detailed computer models, Johnson predicted the possible mutations that could occur at any single point in the virus’ genetic code. She then tested which of those mutations would change the protein’s structure, making it less likely to bind with a virus-fighting antibody.
“If the virus takes on these mutations, it may not interact with antibodies the way we would expect, so a vaccine may not be as effective,” she says.
Throughout her project, Johnson has collaborated with other students and faculty members through UI’s Center for Modeling Complex Interactions.
This cross-disciplinary support has helped Johnson tackle her project’s challenges. Jumping from her typical studies to Ytreberg’s lab seemed daunting at first. She had to learn about biochemistry, a subject she’d never encountered before in her classwork. She loves computer science and had some coding experience, but had to spend the summer learning how to use the complicated simulation program.
“It was pretty slow going, I but I finally was able to figure out what I needed to do,” she says. ““I feel really confident now in learning how to code in new languages.”
Johnson will continue her work with Ebola at least through the end of the academic year. After she earns her bachelor’s degree, she plans to attend graduate school, where she hopes to put her research experience into practice by studying ways to use computer models to optimize chemical engineering processes.
She says she encourages any student to take the opportunity to get involved with research as an undergraduate.
“Don’t be intimidated by it. Don’t be afraid to ask,” she says. “The professors want to help you out.”
Article by Tara Roberts, University Communications and Marketing