Perspectives Online

Super Student. Sharing her passion for biochemical research, Audrey Nelson presents discoveries that hold promise as disease-targeting therapies. By Terri Leith.


Audrey Nelson is part of research zeroing in on a new therapeutic target in the types of bacteria that cause anthrax, strep throat, gangrene, pneumonia, sepsis, tetanus and other diseases.
Photo by Daniel Kim

Ask Audrey Nelson her class year at N.C. State, and she'll reply, "I'm a super senior, a fifth-year senior." She simply means she stayed around another year to get degrees in multiple majors. However, her undergraduate research accomplishments and other capabilities are so amazing that it would not be hard to believe she originally arrived in her native Wilmington from the planet Krypton.

She really is a super student.

Nelson will graduate in May 2006 with bachelor's degrees in biochemistry, microbiology and psychology, and minors in biotechnology and genetics.

She has a 4.0 grade point average. She plans to pursue her M.D. and her Ph.D., with concentrations in neurology and neuroscience. Her goal is to work with patients a couple of days a week, specializing in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's, and then perform lab work the rest of the week, doing stem cell and other research to fight those afflictions.

She has been president, historian and regional vice president of the Gamma Beta Phi honor and service society. She is an Olympics-rated soccer referee and has refereed intercollegiate matches. She is seven jumps into the required 17 to earn a USPA A-License in skydiving.

After graduation she plans to take a year "off" to devote more time to her part-time job as a medical assistant at a family practice in Chapel Hill, while also working at Duke University with a friend who does brain autopsies. She will also be taking courses in philosophy, which is a new passion.

This past August, N.C. State Provost Larry Nielson introduced Nelson to the Board of Governors of the UNC system, to whom she was presenting her winning research project entry from N.C. State's 2005 Undergraduate Research Symposium. The provost, she says, really loosened things up in the room by telling the group that Audrey Nelson was just an everyday N.C. State student picked at random off the street; then he shared her super resume.

But it's what Nelson told the group about her project that earned a standing ovation from the board.

Audrey Nelson's research goal here at N.C. State is no less than to identify a new therapeutic target in the types of bacteria that cause anthrax, food poisoning, sepsis, toxic shock syndrome, strep throat, scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis, botulism, gangrene and tetanus.

Bacillus, Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and Clostridium are some of the most common types of bacteria, known as gram-positive bacteria, and are responsible for those disorders. And they all used to be cured by antibiotics. However, Nelson says, now there are strains of bacteria that are resistant to every commercial antibiotic we have made, and people are dying from disorders that used to be treatable.

The reason, she says, is that almost all antibiotics target the same mechanism in what is called the central dogma of biology - the transfer of information from the genetic code found in DNA down to protein, which is the functional unit of a cell. Most common antibiotics target a translation mechanism in the information transfer to disable the bacteria.

But Nelson's project focuses on a transcription-regulation mechanism unique to gram-positive bacteria. What she's targeting is a regulatory mechanism in the bacteria's gene expression, so that the bacteria will be unable to transcribe certain amino acid genes. The bacteria will then be unable to make proteins from the RNA and thus will die - and be unable to cause disease.

It is a controlling mechanism not found in the host (humans), and therefore a drug or therapy targeting this mechanism would not target the host. Furthermore, says Nelson, the mechanism involves biochemistry so fundamental to life that the bacteria could not become resistant to this therapy without reversing millions of years of its evolution.

"I am characterizing this interaction using a model designed and synthesized by our lab and Tina Henkin from Ohio State University, so that we can start testing candidate small molecules for future therapeutics," says Nelson.

Essentially, she says, "This is early drug discovery research. Our model can go further in drug discovery research steps."

She is already advancing into the next steps of the project, as she looks at the transcription-regulation mechanism required for incorporating the amino acid Valine in proteins. It's all part of her work in the Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry lab of Dr. Paul Agris, who describes Nelson as "one of our best undergrads."

Nelson has been working with Agris' group for more than two years, after previously working in the microbiology lab of Dr. Stephen Libby.

"It's meant a lot to get the hands-on experience and see the research process," she says. "Working in a lab is what you want to do if you want to go into research. When I first came to State, I came as a Thomas Jefferson Scholar, with microbiology and psychology as my majors. Then the summer before my junior year, I realized biochemistry was more what I wanted to do, to work with the more fundamental interactions in life. That's how I came to work with Dr. Agris. DNA, RNA - I love working with the basic elements."

In late summer, she completed (and submitted to her collaborators for peer review) a manuscript for the Journal of Molecular Biology, describing the research that is being funded with a National Science Foundation grant.

Then in October, she made presentations of her work to the N.C. State University Board of Visitors and to the North Carolina RNA society at the Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. In November, she exhibited an updated version of her spring research project as N.C. State hosted the four-day State of North Carolina Undergraduate Research Symposium. There she was one of more than 200 undergraduates from 22 of North Carolina's colleges, universities and community colleges who gave poster presentations of their research.

Her participation in the latter event came at the insistence of its coordinator, Dr. George Barthalmus, professor emeritus of zoology, former associate dean for Academic Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of NCSU's Office of Undergraduate Research. Barthalmus first encountered Nelson's work when he served as judge at the university's Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring. It was after that event that Barthalmus selected Nelson to represent 3,000 NCSU undergraduates in speaking to the Board of Governors in August. Barthalmus also encouraged Nelson's upcoming attendance at Experimental Biology 2006, a weeklong research conference in San Francisco in April.

But Nelson looks forward most to what can come of her research: "If the modifications we are investigating in this transcriptional regulation mechanism are valid targets for future therapeutics, then we could potentially fight infections that are concerns worldwide - from the common strep throat to the bioterrorism threat of anthrax," she says. "And most exciting is the potential to decrease the mortality rate of sepsis, which affects every hospital around the world."