CLEMSON – When she isn’t hiking, painting or serving in the Lutheran Campus Ministries at Clemson University, junior biochemistry major Katherine Floyd is toiling away in the lab.

Floyd (far left), Brock Thornton, Amy Bergmann, and Christian Cochrane at the ASM SC Branch Meeting in spring 2018.

Floyd (far left) and lab mates Brock Thornton, Amy Bergmann, and Christian Cochrane at the ASM SC Branch Meeting in Spring 2018.
Image Credit: Amy Bergmann

This summer, her hard work has paid off. Floyd recently received a fellowship from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) that will fund 10-12 weeks of her research.

Floyd is a student in professor Zhicheng Dou’s lab in the department of biological sciences. As part of Clemson University’s Eukaryotic Pathogens Innovation Center (EPIC), Dou and his students conduct research on a single-celled parasite responsible for a disease known as toxoplasmosis. The parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, infects nearly two billion people worldwide, 60 million of whom reside in the United States.

The fellowship, in the amount of $4,000, will aid Floyd in her research project, which is focused on a specific enzyme in T. gondii’s heme synthesis pathway, called protoporphyrinogen IX oxidase (PPO).

“Heme is an essential molecule for fundamental cellular processes in virtually all organisms,” Floyd said. “Our findings show that the heme biosynthesis pathway in T. gondii is essential for the growth and virulence of the parasite, and PPO is a particularly interesting enzyme to study because a bunch of chemical inhibitors targeting this enzyme have been developed for weed control.”

In her research, Floyd is using herbicides to stunt the growth of T. gondii in the quest to understand the biochemical mechanism controlling heme metabolism in the parasites. Once the mechanism is identified, the possibility of targeting PPO with a therapeutic drug molecule – thus treating toxoplasmosis in millions of people – could become reality.

The fellowship requires Floyd to submit the findings of her research for presentation at ASM Microbe 2019, the society’s annual conference. If her abstract is accepted, Floyd will receive up to $2,000 to attend the conference and other professional development workshops led by ASM.

Toxoplasma gondii as intracellular parasites.

Toxoplasma gondii as intracellular parasites.
Image Credit: Katherine Floyd

As a student who is fascinated by the in-depth study of cellular processes and pathways, Floyd says she is excited to receive the fellowship.

“My favorite part of my research is compiling my data for symposiums and sharing my research and experience with other people in the field, so I am looking forward to the opportunity to present at the ASM Microbe meeting in San Francisco next summer,” Floyd said.

She gives credit to her mentors that have helped shape her as a researcher.

“Dr. Dou has helped me develop my research and problem-solving skills, and Amy Bergmann, our lab technician, has taught me and all the undergrads so much. They’re both great mentors,” she said.

“This is a great honor for Katherine, but also for our microbiology program and EPIC center,” added Dou.

After graduating, Floyd plans to stay in the vein of infectious disease research by pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry or microbiology.

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Jill Walton, a microbiology student, also received a 2018 ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Read more here.