Adam Charest ’24

Research to Stem the Tide of Antibiotic Resistance

Adam Charest ’24 conducts research to develop new natural antimicrobial treatments to help combat the rise in antibiotic-resistant microbes.

Adam Charest '24

Microbiology and German
Commonwealth Honors College

Westport, MA

What drew you to this field of study?

Since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by movies, TV shows, and books about pathogens and infectious diseases. When I got to college, I wanted to pursue an area of study that would allow me to really help people. My sister worked in the Riley Lab before me, and I heard about the amazing work she was doing. I applied and was lucky enough to be accepted.

There’s an arms race going on right now for antimicrobials. By 2050, antibiotic resistance will be the leading cause of death, outpacing cancer. The Riley Lab is dedicated to antimicrobial drug discovery, and I feel like we can really have an impact with our work.

How do you conduct your research?

Our research seeks to highjack naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides—known as bacteriocins—produced by bacteria, in order to help humans, animals, and plants fight pathogens. You can think about bacteria and other microbes as engaged in a perpetual arms race (which we can’t see), competing for resources. They produce these bacteriocins to inhibit the growth of adversaries in their environment. To study bacteriocins in our lab, we grow a large amount of one bacterium on plates, add spots of other bacteria, and look for “zones of inhibition,” which indicates that a bacteriocin has likely been produced to inhibit growth. We focus on finding antibiotic alternatives to combat the highly virulent and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, known as ESKAPEE pathogens, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) watch list.

What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?

In the Riley Lab, we are product-oriented to get our research to the market to help people. I’ve had the pleasure of working as a researcher for Organicin Scientific, Inc.—a start-up that emerged from the Riley Lab. Dr. Margaret Riley is the chief science officer, and two lab alumni serve as the CEO and CFO. We’re working to get the research we’ve done in the lab out into the world to change lives and reduce the exponential growth of antibiotic resistance. I’m currently working with Organicin Scientific to develop new natural, non-antibiotic products that will revolutionize the treatment of aquaculture-related pathogens as well as many other promising pipelines, like acne.

Our lab’s approach to fighting pathogens tends to be much more targeted than antibiotics, which has benefits. For example, the acne-fighting drug we are developing targets specifically, the acne-causing bacteria, Cutibacterium acnes, thus damaging the problematic bacteria without harming the skin microbiome overall.

How does your faculty mentor support your research?

In her lab, Dr. Riley has created an incredibly supportive undergraduate infrastructure for research. In contrast to most research labs, we’re an all-undergraduate lab, and all our projects originate from student researchers’ passions. When I wanted to start researching acne, Dr. Riley was right on board. Rather than tell us what to do, she gives us the tools to do our own projects. As a result, there’s no burnout among the student researchers; in fact, it’s hard to get us out of the lab sometimes! We’re all excited to work hard and get this research out into the market. Undergrads are also responsible for interviewing prospective lab members and selecting and training the next group to carry the torch.

Allowing undergraduates to follow their own interests results in a diverse range of projects being pursued in the lab each year. I’ve had the opportunity to work on several totally different projects and have led three projects for three different teams of undergraduate researchers. I’ve also learned a lot from the senior members who were here before me.

I’m very motivated by the potential results of my research—knowing that the experiment I’m running today may help someone with a new drug in the future.

Adam Charest ‘24

What do you find most exciting about your research?

I’m very motivated by the potential results of my research—knowing that the experiment I’m running today may help someone with a new drug in the future.

When I was younger, I had bad acne. I went on Accutane, which has a lot of harsh side effects. My face was a mess. This personal experience drives me to make a difference for others like me.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of how much I've learned and how far I've come since starting in the lab. I've always liked science, but before starting here, I knew nothing about research. Now I can come up with a protocol, and I know how to move forward with a research study. It’s been a fantastic honor to work with Dr. Riley and to be part of cultivating such a welcoming, supportive, and productive community of undergraduate researchers.

I’m also proud to have played a role in pushing the bounds of the Riley Lab’s work. I helped to bring anaerobic bacteria—which presents many new challenges— to our lab for the first time, and I even built an anaerobic chamber.

How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?

Research has really fueled my passion for learning in the classroom and through reading scientific literature, because I get to apply what I learn in the lab. This experience has helped me find my calling. I’ve realized that I love research and want to pursue this work in the future.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m doing UMass’s 4+1 Master of Science in Microbiology accelerated program and expect to graduate with my master’s degree in May 2025. For the next year, I'll be working full time with Organicin Scientific, doing applied science as head researcher.

Down the road, I’d like to earn a PhD and continue working with pathogens and infectious diseases. I’m not exactly sure where I’ll end up, but I’m open to seeing where my passions will take me.

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?

UMass has given me so much. I’ve been able to cultivate an expansive network here, meeting wonderful people from all around the world with different interests and expertise. With so many different offerings, UMass enables you to push yourself and try new things. And if you want to do research, it’s easy to do here. I have so many friends at UMass who are doing research and challenging their minds and have great jobs set up post-graduation.


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