Preventing terrorism through bioscience

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Kenzie Shippy studies bioterrorism threats in world-renowned lab.

Kenzie Shippy knew her passion for science would open new, exciting paths for her. She just didn’t anticipate those paths would lead to studying direct threats to national security.

And yet, with no prior experience in a lab setting or chemistry background, Shippy, a junior majoring in microbiology, found herself conducting critical research as an undergraduate research specialist in the world-renowned Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics (MGGen) at Northern Arizona University.

“When I first started, it was pretty scary,” Shippy says. “There’s a lot that you have to know, which was intimidating with no experience. I had to learn all the techniques, learn the methods behind them, and why we perform them.  I’ve learned a lot, but I still need help when I use new techniques. I’m always learning.”

Under the microscope

A recipient of the All-Arizona Academic Team full ride scholarship, Shippy is currently working with MGGen on a four-year project involving the study of burkholderia. This bacterium is known to be associated with melioidosis, a disease known to cause chest pain, skin infections, and pneumonia.

“Within the labs, they divide the groups according to the kind of bacteria they work on,” Shippy says.  “There are five different groups within the lab. All the undergraduates had to be working with different types of bacteria that could be considered a threat.”

Shippy and her team work with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to differentiate pathogenic, disease-causing burkholderia from its non-pathogenic counterparts. She explains that current knowledge on burkholderia is scarce, and that discovering what makes it pathogenic is key in combating potential bioterrorism threats.

“Because it is disease-causing and can be found in the soil, it gives it a really high potential of being used as a biological weapon,” Shippy says. “We want to sequence the DNA of non-pathogenic burkholderia and compare it to the pathogenic strains - how it differs will show us which genes are pathogenic and what can cause disease.”

Troops stationed overseas could be easily exposed to soil containing burkholderia, for example, and Shippy says it is important to determine whether or not it’s naturally-occurring. 

“One reason the Defense Agency is so focused on this bacteria is because it is so poorly understood,” Shippy says. “It could be easy for someone to acquire it, so we want to be able to develop tests that tell us whether it’s a pathogen or a non-pathogen.”

Practical application

As a research specialist, Shippy earns up to six credit hours per semester towards her bachelor’s degree, in addition to student wages. More importantly, the opportunity to apply classroom lessons in a real-world setting has simultaneously provided Shippy with a more comprehensive understanding of her course material and further insight into her research.

“In six months, I have learned so much,” Shippy says. “Last semester, when I took my genetics class, I felt like I was ahead of the curve because so much of what we were learning I already knew from work. The material definitely corresponds to what I’m doing in the lab and each type of learning informs the other.”

Shippy expects to draw on these lessons as she prepares to pursue a secondary degree at a physician’s assistant’s school. She believes her work with MGGEN will allow her to more fully understand the human body and how to properly treat it.

With her eyes now to the future, Shippy is grateful for the experiences she has gained and the doors that have opened for her going forward. 

“Getting a degree in microbiology will help me achieve all of my goals,” Shippy says. “The research opportunities that I’ve had here have been amazing. It’s really been a once in a lifetime opportunity to work out of that lab.”