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Head-Scratching Research

Head lice—the mere mention of these pesky creatures is often enough to make anyone cringe or scratch a phantom itch on their scalp, but for Matthew Anderson (’17 mathematics), lice have given him an itch for research.

Working alongside Dr. Marina Eremeeva, Anderson has investigated new approaches to the treatment of human head louse infestations, and his hard work was recently awarded with the 2016 ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship (URF) Program Award by the Education Board of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).

This award provides a stipend for guided research during the summer and pays his travel expenses to attend the 2017 ASM Research Capstone Institute. Additionally, he will present his research at the ASM Microbe Meeting in New Orleans.

Anderson was introduced to this project this past September when he changed his major to mathematics and developed an interest in bioinformatics and molecular biology.

“I’m really interested in biostatistics and bioinformatics and its uses in answering questions about public health or biological sciences,” said Anderson. “I feel the mathematics major is giving me excellent quantitative skills that will help me with my future goals in biostatistics and bioinformatics.

By joining this ongoing project, Anderson has the opportunity to work with both biology and matters concerning public health. Their research focuses on understanding the role endosymbionts have in lice. This can help identify new treatments for lice, which are becoming increasingly difficult to eradicate, primarily through detecting an endosymbiont called Wolbachia. Endosymbionts are bacteria that live inside other cells and provide benefits to their hosts, such as synthesizing nutrients to provide the cell with nourishment, so creating an antibiotic to kill them could help treat difficult cases of lice.

“Already-existing studies suggest Wolbachia should be present in lice,” said Anderson. “Our goal is to identify it and understand the metabolic role it provides to lice. Just knowing it’s there can provide useful insight into the treatment and evolution of lice in general.”

Anderson’s role in this project began this January, and he is excited to see where it goes in the future.

He said, “It’s an honor to get to work with Dr. Eremeeva. She’s got so much knowledge on microbiology—it’s amazing, really. She has been very supportive, and I am lucky to have this opportunity. I can’t wait for people to see our work at the symposium next spring.”


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