Pursuing a career in medicine:
a conversation with JMU undergraduate Elisabeth Lehigh

Majors: Biology, Spanish

Hometown: Longmont, Colo.

High School: Papillion-Lavista South High

Highlights: Sophomore; loves her research opportunities at JMU, especially her current work with research and technology development giant SRI International; hopes to pursue a career in medicine; did study-abroad program in Salamanca, Spain; earned International Baccalaureate degree in high school

JMU undergraduate Elisabeth Lehigh wants to pursue a career in medicine

JMU undergraduate Elisabeth Lehigh

How did you get interested in your research?

My interest in viruses started in high school when we learned about them, and then last year I read some books about viruses and became more interested in them. Biology has these brown bag Friday talks, and I went to one where Dr. Biesecker spoke about her research. She spoke so clearly and explained things so well, and then I e-mailed her to ask if we could get together and talk more. We did, she talked some more about her research, and then I started working with her this year.

So then what?

We got together with SRI and planned out what we were all going to be doing. The Dengue Virus has proteins on the outside of it called envelope proteins, so we are trying to determine the interaction that the envelope protein makes with the receptor proteins on the host cell membrane surface so that we can try and detect the virus down the road. If we can figure out that interaction, we can find a way to discover that the virus is in a person, and to be able to detect it before the person has a full-blown infection.

Talk about what you're doing in the lab.

We are cloning the gene for the envelope protein, and then we are going to try to express that in mammalian size. We think the proteins are going to go to these lipid rafts on the cell membrane, and then we are going to determine which proteins on the raft that they interact with. It's really exciting.

Who is working with you on this?

Teresa Russo, who is a senior, and Christina Ruiz. There are also seniors Kevin Mann and Ashley Alexander. They are working on their ISAT thesis and they are the ones who are actually cloning the genes for the virus proteins. The rest of us are going to be the ones who are going to infect the mammalian cells and then study the protein interactions. We are learning cell culture techniques. We are learning Aseptic Microbiological Technique, which is more a mindset than anything that has to do with how you work. For example, in order not to contaminate anything, you can't pass your hand over a container. You have to imagine that you have this shower of bacteria coming off of you, and so you have to pay attention at all times about what both your hands are doing so that you don't cross them. It's really cool.

Where does the work occur?

We have been working in the SRI labs in the basement of Burruss Hall on campus. There's a Laminar Flow Hood there. It's a Bio-Safety Level 2. I think they're getting Dengue Serotype 2 Virus, and we'll actually be working with it in there. The second serotype is the least infectious, so that's why we're working with that one.

Does that mean more specialized training?

Yes. We have to get bloodborne pathogen training. We also have to get blood work done to make sure we haven't been exposed to some form of the virus such as maybe when one of us was out of the country earlier.

How is biology at JMU?

I really love biology here. All of my professors that I have had have been great. They are all really nice, and are so willing to go above and beyond to help you, whether it is teaching you or even with career advice. I have been really, really happy with the biology department. It is really good.

What do you want to do?

I want to be a doctor. I have always been interested in the medical aspects of biology, but I wasn't certain about where that might take me. I thought at first about being a teacher. Now, I am really interested in doing the Doctors Without Borders program. It would be cool to get to go to South America or Latin America so that I could use my Spanish too.

Are you pleased with JMU?

Yes. I really like the size. The faculty here can really know you as a person. You get called by name. You are not just a number here at all. I also really like the focus on the undergraduate here. All the classes are taught by professors. They have available office hours and are more than willing to help.