Illuminating How Cells Fight Off Infections
Timothy Mehrmann '23
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Commonwealth Honors College
What drew you to this field of study?
I’ve been interested in studying infectious disease for a long time, and I chose to study at UMass Amherst because of the infectious disease research being conducted here. I joined the lab of Professor Mandy Muller in the Department of Microbiology because I find virology to be a unique and interesting way to study cell biology—that is, understanding the cell from the perspective of an invader.
About three months after I joined the lab, the COVID-19 pandemic started, and virology took on a whole new level of relevance. My previous interest in infectious disease coupled with living through the pandemic has cemented virology as something I want to pursue for the rest of my life.
How do you conduct your research?
In the Muller lab, I study Kaposi’s-sarcoma associated herpesvirus (KSHV), which causes several B-cell lymphomas and its namesake, the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma. Kaposi’s sarcoma is one of the most common and aggressive cancers in people with untreated AIDS. Specifically, I’m investigating the host protein, C19ORF66 (named “Shiftless”) to understand how it might inhibit the virus. Thus far, I’ve been able to confirm an interaction between Shiftless and the viral protein ORF57 through my research, and also found that Shiftless appears to decrease ORF57 levels, which may impact the virus’s ability to replicate. As part of my honor’s thesis, I hope to further characterize Shiftless’s restriction of KSHV. Depending on the outcome of this research, it may suggest a translation-based restriction mechanism or protein degradation-based mechanism.
What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?
Our research in the lab aims to improve understanding of how our cells fight off infections. Characterizing proteins like Shiftless is hugely important, and one day could be the basis for the development of small-molecule drugs to treat cancer.
Research gives purpose to what I'm learning in the classroom. [...] Research is also freeing for me: I get to explore my ideas and see where the biology takes me.
How does your faculty mentor support your research?
Professor Muller is extremely kind and compassionate. She’s always willing to talk and help me explore ideas, but not so far that I go down a rabbit hole. Professor Muller keeps me on the right track with my projects while allowing me to work independently. She also has encouraged, supported, and helped me to apply for scholarships and awards. Professor Muller recommended that I apply for the Pioneer Valley Microbiology Symposium held at UMass Amherst, which resulted in the opportunity for me to offer a poster presentation.
I also have a great relationship with my graduate student mentor, Will Rodriguez. He’s trained me in every technique I use in the lab, and I’ve learned so much from his project.
My lab feels like a support network, and my work has kept me well grounded. It was easy to feel isolated during the pandemic, but coming into my lab every day, being able to learn and explore, helped me get through it.
What do you find most exciting about conducting research?
Research gives purpose to what I’m learning in the classroom. The intellectual demands of research help me maintain drive and interest in my classes. Research is also freeing for me: I get to explore my ideas and see where the biology takes me.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud to be second author on a paper published in the American Society for Microbiology’s Journal of Virology. I worked really hard and had to overcome many technical issues in my research to achieve this. It’s a nice way to summarize my work in the lab.
How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?
There’s no doubt that research has made me a better student. Virology is such an all-encompassing field, requiring a wide breadth of knowledge. I have realized that half of the material presented in class I have already learned through my work in the lab.
Research has given me the confidence to be more fully engaged in my classes. Sometimes, it feels like biochemistry classes cover so much ground, but working in a lab has motivated me to retain information because it ends up being hugely relevant.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m planning to take a gap year while I apply for combined MD/PhD programs. Ultimately, I aspire to both practice as an infectious disease specialist as well as lead a research lab focused on clinical virology. I’m especially interested in using structural biology to better understand the mechanisms by which innate immune proteins act.
Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?
UMass has awesome diversity, a supportive and engaging community, and a huge breadth of opportunities. Of course these opportunities don't always fall in your lap. In my case, it took initiative and persistence to find the type of work in a research lab that I was seeking. Opportunities are out there for you to find at UMass.