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A Newsletter for Biochemistry, Genetics and Cell Biology, and Microbiology Alumni & Friends College of Veterinary Medicine | Molecular Biosciences News

Fellowship Helps Fund a Love of Pathogens

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ‘04


In a light-filled laboratory, Nick Negretti grows bacteria.

“I love pathogens,” says Negretti, who is a graduate student in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences. “They are so interesting. In each of us, there are more bacterial cells than human cells,” he says. “And while most bacteria are helpful, there are a few that make us sick.”

Negretti works in the lab of WSU professor Mike Konkel, a leading expert on the food-borne pathogen Campylobacter jejuni. Often found in the intestines of chickens, C. jejuni is the most common bacterial cause of human food poisoning in the world. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that can sometimes result in death. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control estimate 1.3 million people are infected each year. By understanding how bacteria make people ill, Konkel and Negretti’s work could help develop new therapies for disease prevention.

But like most university labs, Konkel depends on grant money to fund ongoing, long-term research. When he learned there would be a gap in funding because of timing between grants, his lab was able to continue research without interruption because of funds from the Charles and Audrey Drake Fellowship*.

“The funds from the Drake Fellowship really helped,” says Konkel. “This type of bridge funding is critical because preliminary research is necessary to apply for grant money.” Konkel and his team are now funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

For Negretti, who began his undergraduate studies in the STARS program, it meant that he could continue his research and stay on track to graduate  in 2019. STARS, which stands for Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies, gives exceptional undergraduate students the opportunity to begin doing research their first year and finish their doctorate in as few as seven years.

“Coming to college I knew I wanted to do research, and the STARS program is a good way to get involved in research right from the beginning,” he says.

Negretti came to WSU in August 2011 right out of high school, and had applied to the STARS program. “I didn’t get in my first semester,” he says. Undaunted, he applied again, was accepted, and went on to finish his bachelors of science in just three years. Now a graduate student, he has worked in Konkel’s lab almost from the beginning. “The best way to learn is to jump in feet first,” he says.

In August 2016, Negretti and Konkel will visit the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Virginia where they will use one-of-a-kind, high-definition microscopes to understand better how C. jejuni bacteria bind to the host cells in the intestine.

Host cells change their behavior because of the bacteria, says Negretti, and the only way to understand the tools bacteria use to get a cell to do something it wouldn’t normally do is with a high-definition microscope.

“Nick is addressing questions that can only be answered using a highly specialized microscope,” says Konkel. “We are lucky to go to the Advanced Imaging Center at Janelia.”

Negretti is hoping to learn more about how bacteria bind to the host cells in the intestine and how that interaction changes both the host cell and the bacterial cell. “It will give us a better idea how it [bacteria] manipulates the cell,” he says. “This is a very valuable piece of information.” That information will lead to new questions and answers. “Letting the science happen,” he says.

After he graduates, Negretti wants a postdoctoral research position. After that, “I will see where life is,” he says. And where life and science take him.

1st Biennial Chromatin-DNA Repair Lecture Honored the Distinguished Careers of Drs. Raymond Reeves and Michael Smerdon

To honor Drs. Smerdon and Reeves and their long careers and innovative research on how DNA in chromatin influences basic cell functions, the School of Molecular Biosciences hosted the “Smerdon/Reeves Symposium on DNA Repair in Chromatin: The First 40 years (and Beyond)” May 21-23, 2015.

Reeves and Smerdon
Raymond Reeves and Michael Smerdon

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Reaching for the STARS

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ‘04

Travis Kent 1
Travis Kent

When Travis Kent was still a high school student in Boise, Idaho, Washington State University was one of his top choices. But it was on a visit to the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences when he was told about STARS, a fast-track program where students can begin as undergraduates and earn a doctorate in seven years, when he knew this was the place for him.

“I was excited about getting into the lab early and that shifted my decision to come to WSU,” said Kent, who in 2016 will earn a doctorate in genetics and cell biology.

With STARS, or Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies, students can begin their laboratory training their first year. Each semester and over the summer students receive stipends and the funding allows them to spend time doing their own research, rather than working off-campus.

“Without the STARS program, I wouldn’t have been able to work in a lab over the summer,” said Kent. “I would have been further behind in my research.”

Because he had done lab rotations as an undergraduate, by the time he entered graduate school he was able to focus more on research and he was ahead of other graduate students entering the program.

“I’ve been working in the lab for six years,” said Kent. “I feel better prepared for my exams and I was ahead in my coursework as well.”

Kent’s research is on how abnormal levels of vitamin A, or retinoic acid, can affect fertility in men. A fat soluble vitamin, retinoic acid levels are affected by an individual’s metabolism.

“Half of all infertility cases are men,” said Kent. “But in about 50% of those cases, they don’t know the cause.” His research could lead to different advice by doctors who may prescribe vitamin A to treat acne if it could cause infertility later on.

“I’m passionate about reproductive biology,” said Kent.

When he finishes graduate school at just 24 years old, he will have many options in front of him.

“Whether I work in academia, government, or for industry, I haven’t decided,” said Kent. He is currently planning to pursue three to five years of postdoctoral training after he earns his doctorate.

“After that, I am keeping my options open,” said Kent.

For more information about supporting the STARS program visit

Training our Students to Succeed

Graduate students in the college will have a new opportunity this fall. Doctoral students earning a degree in molecular bioscience, neuroscience or immunology/infectious disease can now be part of a new gateway program Integrated Programs in Biomedical Sciences (iPBS).

For doctoral students pursuing a degree in molecular biosciences, it means access to a wider range of educational resources and faculty mentors, said John Nilson, professor in the School for Molecular Biosciences who is spearheading the program. They will also learn skills to help them succeed in a variety of professions.

“They will learn more than just how to be good scientists,” said Nilson. “It will give our students new skills and tools to pursue a variety of professions that require a scientific background.”

After earning their doctoral degrees, students will be well-equipped to pursue careers in science policy development, science communication, patent law, educational research, or as researchers in industry or academia. The doctoral component is the foundation that supports the professional development component, said Nilson.

The program will begin mid-July with a professional development leadership retreat followed by three laboratory rotations that begin in summer and end in December.

“The program emphasizes professional development,” said Nilson. “We are training them to be consummate professionals who are committed to a life-time of learning and serving.”

Meet New SMB Director, Jonathan Jones

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ‘04

Drs John Nilson and Jonathan Jones
John Nilson and Jonathan Jones

SMB welcomes new a director, Jonathan Jones. Jonathan comes to us from Northwestern University’s Department of Cell and Molecular Biology in the Feinberg School of Medicine. To get here, he and his wife Susan drove 1869 miles from Chicago to Pullman over Labor Day weekend with a dog and tropical fish in tow.

“We were very glad when we drove into the parking of the SMB building September 3,” says Jones. “The fish most of all.”

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Phil Mixter Takes Over Molecular Bioscience Lab after Alberta Brassfield Retired

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ‘04

Alberta Brassfield and Phil Mixter
Alberta Brassfield and Phil Mixter

For 16 years, Alberta (Bert) Brassfield, a WSU instructor, taught immunology and virology lab classes to seniors, a course now known as Molecular Biosciences 430.  The class was a favorite of many students because of its small size and lots of instructor-student interaction and individual attention.  Alumni have described Bert’s class as pivotal in “putting it all together” and “clarifying my career path.”

So when Phil Mixter took over the lab last fall, it was no small task.

“I had big shoes to fill,” said Mixter, clinical associate professor. “For many students, this was the place where a lot of the foundational knowledge began to be integrated.”

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NIH funds scientists’ work to unravel cell repair

Michael Smerdon, left, and John Wyrick with model of DNA double helix. (Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU Photo Services)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Each moment, every cell in your body is being assaulted and – fortunately – fixed, thanks to the crews of handymen enzymes that travel up and down your DNA strands. Considering that you wouldn’t survive without these built-in repair systems, it’s reassuring to know that two Washington State University scientists, awarded a $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, have made it their mission to understand how the mechanisms work and why, sometimes, they fail.

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Paying it Forward: Dr. Herbert M. Nakata

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ‘04

When it came to helping students, Dr. Herbert Nakata made it his life’s work. Beginning in 1970 and for the next 28 years, he helped establish 11 endowed scholarships fund that are still supporting students today.

“I have a lot of empathy for students,” said Dr. Nakata emeritus professor and former chair of the Microbiology department at WSU. “I know how tough it is for them, and college was a lot less expensive back then than it is today.”

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Freshman Discover and Name Viruses in SEA Lab

(l-r) Students Amy Nusbaum and Joseph Lawhead

by Marcia Hill Gossard ’99, ‘04

James Bonner loves science. As a freshman, James knew he wanted to major in biochemistry, so when he was selected to be part of the new hands-on Science Education Alliance biology lab, or SEA lab, in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences, he was thrilled.

“The lab brings abstract scientific concepts into everyday learning,” said Bonner, one of 24 randomly selected freshmen admitted to the SEA lab in the fall 2011, the program’s pilot year.

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First STARS Students Start Graduate School

Meet Ross Rowsey one of the first STARS students to start graduate school! STARS— Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies— gives select students a chance to accelerate learning and earn a doctorate in as little as seven years after leaving high school. Ross Rowsey, currently a senior at WSU working with Dr. Terry Hassold, will be one of the first graduates of the STARS program when he finishes his Ph.D. in 2015.

More on STARS students