George receives competitive fellowship for mosquito genomics research
More than one million human lives are lost each year to malaria. Vector-borne disease researchers have determined that some members of the Anopheles gambiaemosquito complex are the most efficient malaria pathogen transmitters in sub-Saharan Africa. As the pathogen continues to spread rapidly, researchers are also working rapidly to dissect the method of transmission, and ultimately, to stop it.
Phillip George, a Ph.D. student in Virginia Tech’s entomology department, is interested in a distinct evolutionary split in the Anopheles gambiae complex and why some members are excellent vectors of malaria while others are not.
George is determined to understand what component of the mosquito’s genetic make-up is responsible for the two different levels of capability and is also investigating other general differences in the species. Understanding the differences could one day allow scientists to genetically alter Anopheles gambiae so that a larger number of the mosquitoes are ineffective at transmitting disease.
The answer, George says, could lie in heterochromatin, the condensed and tightly packed DNA in the mosquito cell primarily made up of repetitive DNA and associated with the most gene-poor regions of the genome. Heterochromatin is the most rapidly evolving domain of the genome.
“Heterochromatin has been shown to interact with the nuclear envelope, settling chromosomes into potential territories that they inhabit,” George said. “The chromosomes have the potential to move within the nucleus to aid in gene regulation and chromosome interaction. I want to see if this organization, as well as heterochromatin in general, may differ between the various species of the complex and thus play a role in species evolution.”
George’s research is an aspect of the work being done in the lab of Igor Sharakhov, associate professor of entomology and affiliated faculty member with the Fralin Life Science Institute. Sharakhov and his research team seek to understand how mosquito genomes are organized and evolve as mosquitoes adapt to diverse environments and change their ability to transmit malaria parasites.
“Phillip’s original research focuses on understanding the mechanisms and dynamics of genome organization and evolution in malaria mosquitoes. This line of research will eventually lead to the development of novel genome-based interventions to control malaria,” Sharakhov said. “Phillip is a first author and co-author of five peer-reviewed publications, which demonstrates his research productivity. He is a key participant in the international collaborations of my laboratory with colleagues in Italy and France.”
In 2012, George received the highly competitive Chateaubriand Fellowship to conduct collaborative research in the Génétique Reproduction et Développement laboratory at the University of Blaise-Pascal, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. The fellowship allows George to further elucidate heterochromatin elements under the direction of Dr. Chantal Vaury, who works primarily with the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. George hopes to study the machinery involved in repetitive element expression in the fruit fly to see if a similar mechanism exists in the mosquito.
George came to Virginia Tech as an undergraduate to pursue veterinary science, but decided early in his senior year to switch to entomology. He is affiliated with VT-PREP, a post-baccalaureate program that provides scholars from historically underrepresented ethnic groups resources to pursue a research career in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.
Q&A: Meet Phil
Entomology (4th year)
Dr. Igor Sharakhov
Animal and Poultry Sciences, B.S., Virginia Tech
Why do you want to be a scientist? When did you know?
I want to be a scientist because there are few greater feelings than spending hours or days working on an experiment to have it end up working. For all the failures that typically occur in lab, all those bad feelings wash away when your experiment works like it should. I probably knew after my second year as a PhD student. I'd been having major problems trying to get one of my experiments to work. This was a major part of my research plan and nothing would work. Then one day it worked, and I had a renewed sense of purpose.
What attracted you to your particular field of science?
I enjoy understanding how things work. If I hadn't been a scientist, I'd probably be an engineer. By working in molecular biology, you get to learn about the basic building blocks of life and devise new or better ways to understand how organisms work.
Your best Eureka! Moment (when something cool happened in your research):
I'd probably say it is related to my "why do you want to be a scientist" moment. Basically, the project involved a simple procedure that we do all the time in lab, but on a different type of sample. None of the protocols that we had been using or protocols that were widely available were working. I went to France that summer and came back with a heavily adapted method for this project. It still didn't work, but after about a month of optimization I finally figured it out. This lead to the production of some great pictures (that I need to make more of).
If you were a component of a human cell, what would you be and why?
Can I be an entire cell? If so, I'd totally be a phagocyte. I love eating! If not, maybe a flagella? I can't sit still most of the time.
Which quality of the following do you feel is the most important for a scientist to possess—open-mindedness, precision, time management skills, optimism, cynicism, integrity, a good sense of humor? Why?
In terms of getting through graduate school and finding a job - time management, without a doubt. All of those other skills could technically be more important, and I do think they are in most respects; but, without time management you really can't make it through grad school. With the classes, TA'ing, research, and writing, it's nearly impossible to have bad time management skills and not be completely stressed out at the end of the day.
Be a geek: what’s your favorite piece of equipment to use in the lab? Why?
I'd say either the confocal microscope or the laser microdissection microscope. The things you can do with both of them are pretty incredible. The images that the confocal produces is really neat. The laser microdissection microscope uses a laser to cut things. I think that says enough! Plus, they both are super expensive- so that's a huge plus.
Are you a pet owner?
Yes, I have a Golden Retriever here at Tech, and a stable of pets back at home (A cocker spaniel and Shih Tzu, a parrot, 2 guinea pigs, and 2 lovebirds). To be fair, the birds and the Shih Tzu are really my mom's pets.
Favorite hobby outside of school?
Probably basketball. Great stress reliever.