UMass Amherst Undergraduate Wins National Microbiology Fellowship

Corelle Rokicki
UMass Amherst junior Corelle Rokicki

AMHERST, Mass. – Corelle Rokicki of Truro, a junior microbiology major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has received a 2017 Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the American Society for Microbiology to support her summer research project in the lab of her advisor, microbiology professor Yasu Morita. 

The society says that with the award it offers an “elite opportunity to the best and the brightest rising young scientists, whom we recognize will represent the society and themselves to their full potential. For this, we applaud your determination and motivation within the sciences and hope that you will enhance your research through the URF program.”

Rokicki will receive a stipend of $4,000 to support a minimum of 10 weeks of full-time paid summer research, plus up to $2,000 for student travel to the society’s Microbe Academy for Professional Development and Microbe Meeting in Atlanta in June 2018.

She says, “I’m honored to be chosen for such an incredible fellowship. Microbiology has become one of my many passions and I can’t wait to delve deeper into my project this coming summer.” She will work with Morita using a non-pathogenic species of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis in an attempt to “provide important insights to the fundamental biology of mycobacterial cell and possibly to the pathogenesis of mycobacterial pathogens.”

Morita says, “The American Society for Microbiology is the largest society for microbiologists in the world and this is a prestigious fellowship award. I am proud of Corelle and look forward to working with her on her proposed project over the coming weeks.”

As the scientists explain, tuberculosis is caused by a bacterium in the Mycobacterium genus. Its high virulence is due in part to a unique, four-layered “cellular envelope” that helps the bacteria survive against antibiotic drug therapy and the body’s immune response to infection. Morita and colleagues recently discovered that there is another type of lipid or fatty membrane in Mycobacterium known as an intracellular membrane domain (IMD) where a number of enzymes essential for creating the cellular envelope are found.

One of Rokicki’s research goals will be to further explore and gain a better understanding of the IMD’s physiological functions in the bacterium. Morita says Rokicki will specifically investigate the important question of how proteins associate with the IMD during or after stress exposure. He says, “Corelle proposes to use a photo-switchable fluorescent protein to reveal spatiotemporal dynamics of the IMD-associated proteins in mycobacterial cells in response to various stress conditions.”

“Her proposed experiment will provide key evidence for us to pursue the novel concept of spatial membrane rearrangement as an energy-saving fast response mechanism against stress conditions to which tuberculosis pathogens are exposed during infection,” he adds.

In addition to Morita at UMass Amherst, Rokicki will work with scientists at the Wadsworth Center, which is the public health research laboratory of the New York State Department of Health in Albany, and others at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She will learn and use several sophisticated biochemical and cell biological techniques such as protein expression assays, fluorescence microscopy and a membrane purification technique known as density gradient fractionation.