Bacteria can cause many common illnesses, including strep throat and ear infections. If you’ve ever gone to the doctor for one of these infections, they likely prescribed an antibiotic—a medicine designed to fight bacteria. Because bacteria can also cause life-threatening infections, antibiotics have saved many lives. However, the widespread use of antibiotics has fueled a growing problem: antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can survive some or even all antibiotics. Other microorganisms, including fungi, can similarly become resistant to the medicines that are used to treat them. Infections from these microorganisms affect many people and are difficult to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. alone, resistant bacteria and fungi infect 2.8 million people each year, and more than 35,000 die as a result.
Although Dr. Santiago-Frangos wanted to become a scientist from a young age and always found biology interesting, by the time he was attending high school in his native country of Cyprus, he had developed a passion for physics and thought he’d pursue a career in that field. However, working at a biotechnology company for a summer changed his mind. “That experience made me want to dive into biology more deeply because I could see how it could be directly applied to human health. Physics can also be applied to human health, but, at least at that time, biology seemed to me like a more direct way to help humanity,” says Dr. Santiago-Frangos.
Antibiotics are a class of drugs that treat bacterial infections. They may seem common now, but they were discovered less than a century ago. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a scientist studying bacteria, found that mold from his bread kept bacteria from growing. He determined that “mold juice” was able to kill different types of harmful bacteria, and he and his assistants worked to figure out what natural product in the mold was actually causing the killing. It turned out to be penicillin!
Thanks to Fleming’s discovery, doctors have been successfully treating bacterial infections with penicillin and other newer antibiotics. But in recent years, some infections that were once treatable with antibiotics no longer respond to them. Some of these infections can be treated with multiple rounds of different antibiotic treatments, but others aren’t treatable at all—even leading to death in some cases.
“Science provides adventure and excitement every single day. When you’re pushing boundaries, you get to jump into the abyss of new areas. It can be scary, but it’s an incredible opportunity to try to improve our world and people’s lives,” says César de la Fuente, Ph.D., a Presidential Assistant Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Our interview with Dr. de la Fuente highlights his journey of becoming a scientist and his research using artificial intelligence to discover new drugs.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by the world around me. I grew up in a town in northwest Spain, right on the Atlantic Ocean. As a kid, I would go to the beach to investigate marine organisms and bring home all sorts of different fish to study. My mom wasn’t too happy about that! We’re all born scientists, but we tend to lose that curiosity as we enter adulthood. The key is to not lose our ability to learn every day.
“Being able to discover new, unexpected things is why you wake up every day and go to work as a scientist. The other part is hopefully to have a positive impact on human health—through combatting conditions ranging from antibiotic resistance to cancer,” says Elizabeth Parkinson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organicchemistry at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. In an interview, Dr. Parkinson shared with us her path to a scientific career, research on natural products made by soil-dwelling bacteria, and advice for students.
Q: What sparked your interest in science?
A: My high school freshman biology teacher, Mr. O’Connell, first got me interested in science. He’d bring objects to class, and we’d have to guess how they might relate to the day’s subject matter. One time he brought strawberries, and we isolated DNA from them, which I really enjoyed. I also participated in a science fair for the first time that year. My project focused on how the color of light affected plant growth, and that was a very fun experience.
“I study the dance between a bacterium and its host. If we can decode the secrets of that dance—how the pathogen causes disease, and how the host fights back—we might be able to take advantage of vulnerabilities to improve our ability to combat infections,” says Víctor J. Torres, Ph.D., the C. V. Starr Professor of Microbiology at the New York University (NYU) Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.
Discovering and Pursuing a Passion for Science
Growing up, Dr. Torres never would have imagined his highly successful scientific career, especially since he didn’t have a strong interest in science. He entered the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, in 1995, planning to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and join the Air Force after graduation. He struggled during his first year of college and had to repeat several courses. In one of those courses, he met a fellow student who was planning to pursue a career in science—his now wife, Carmen A. Perez, M.D., Ph.D., who’s a radiation oncologist at NYU Langone. She shared with Dr. Torres some of the opportunities in science available to him, including the NIGMS-funded Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program at their university.
“My parents told me that I already wanted to be a scientist when I was 7 or 8 years old. I don’t remember ever considering anything else,” says Ry Young, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and biology at Texas A&M University, College Station.
Dr. Young has been a researcher for more than 45 years and is a leading expert on bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria. He and other scientists have shown that phages, as bacteriophages are often called, could help us fight bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant infections cause more than 35,000 deaths per year in the U.S., and new, effective treatments for them are urgently needed.
Formation of a biofilm often involves a process called quorum sensing. In this process, microbes detect when they reach a certain population density and change their behavior in ways that help them function as a community.
Josephine (Josie) Chandler, Ph.D., first became interested in science when she took a high school chemistry class. In college, she fell in love with microbiology and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in the field. Today, she’s an associate professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where her lab investigates interactions in bacterial communities. By better understanding these interactions, scientists may find new ways to stop infections or break down environmental pollutants—a process known as bioremediation.
We seldom see microscopic objects next to one another, so it can be difficult to picture how they compare. For instance, it might surprise you that a thousand cold-virus particles could line up across one human skin cell! The largest objects that scientists view through microscopes are about a millimeter (roughly the size of a poppyseed), and they’re about 10 million times larger than the smallest molecules scientists can view: atoms.