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 Profile of STAR Student Jessica Johnston

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October 15, 2010

After spending the greater portion of her summer researching the ins and outs of Lyme disease bacteria, veterinary student Jessica Johnston finally had her chance to shine. Johnston is one of the five students funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to present her project and findings on Friday, September 24th for “STARs in Science Day”—a part of the Students Training in Advanced Research program.

By completing a 10 week summer program, the STAR program serves as a gateway for first, second, and third year veterinary students interested in gaining experience in a wide variety biomedical research. The program itself is composed of five tiers including: a plan, hypothesis, knowledge, composition, and a presentation. The students are not only exposed to a great advantage, but they are equipped with a mentor from the UC Davis veterinary faculty as well as sufficient funding. This year’s 38 STAR students received funds from the school itself, the NIH, and the Merial, and Morris Animal Foundation.

Johnston’s research on the “Susceptibility of Genetically Diverse Borrelia burgdorferi Strains to Antibiotics” marked her first time working in a research facility. She exclaims: “It was my first time in a lab…ever.” For Johnston, who says she “didn’t even know how to use a pipette” prior to her summer of laboratory immersion, the newfound experience of working in a lab, on a technical level, was overwhelmingly beneficial. Despite being out of her comfort zone, which until last summer consisted of veterinary clinics and hospitals, Johnston says she “learned an impossible number of skills.”

As part of the STAR program’s objective, the students are guided by faculty mentors through their summer research plans in order to nurture and support their veterinary goals. Johnston holds her mentor, Stephen Barthold in high esteem, saying “he was fabulous,” stressing his immense patience with her throughout the weeks as her research progressed.

With a total of 60 mice and five strains of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria responsible for causing Lyme disease, Johnston infected 12 mice per strain, encouraging the now viable organism Borrelia to multiply within the mice, creating five diverse groups of hosts. Once each of the mice tested positive for Lyme disease through polymerase chain reaction testing, or PCR testing, Johnston was able to treat them with antibiotics including Ceftriaxone, commonly used for Lyme disease and Typhoid fever. In terms of Johnston’s hypothesis, she was hoping for the treated mice in at least one of the distinct groups to reflect improved conditions, testing negative for Lyme disease.
After euthanasia and repeated PCR testing on the mice treated with the antibiotics, Johnston concluded that all of the mice still tested positive for Lyme disease. Though she says: “my hypothesis was wrong,” it is a result that occurs more often than not in science, especially in such complex pathology studies. Johnston is adamant that the experience and opportunity to acquire these otherwise foreign skills was well worth it.

For students like Jessica Johnston, those who may not intend on remaining in the lab as a career, but wish for some-know how and familiarity, the STAR program offers tremendous opportunity. “The experience” Johnston says, “was valuable as a view of the other side, from the side of research”. Thanks to the NIH and the resources offered through the STAR program, Johnston now has claim to irreplaceable understanding and support for an important side of veterinary medicine.

For more information on this year's Students Training in Advanced Research Program, visit:

This article was written by Alyson Salmon, a writing/marketing intern from the Department of American Studies.