A fair number of college kids don’t know which direction to take their future careers. They don’t know who they want to be, or if they will be successes or failures in life, depending on what career they choose.
Drs. Monica Borucki and Jonathan Allen were no different. Borucki held a degree in microbiology from Cal Poly and Allen was majoring in history at UC Santa Cruz, yet in the end both became scientists working for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).
“I was — probably like a lot of people — attracted by the glamor of video games and electronic music, so that kind of attracted me to getting into computer science,” Allen said.
On Wednesday, April 10, both Borucki and Allen visited Las Positas College and gave a one-hour presentation regarding their various fields of study. Question and answer time was included for the fully packed room along with the initial presentation. At the end of the night, students walked away with a base knowledge of both local bio threats and next generation sequencing to explore such threats in further detail.
“The chance of a bio threat is much less certain than a chance of an influenza pandemic. So just for public health and homeland safety, we have to prepare ourselves for naturally occurring bio threat events, which happen frequently,” Borucki said.
During the course of the lecture, several bio threats were examined. The main one that Borucki focused on, however, was rabies, which is defined as a type of naturally occurring biological threat. The reason why LLNL focuses on it in detail is because of the potency of the virus.
“If you have symptoms, you’re as good as dead,” Borucki said.
Rabies can infect most mammals. In the United States, common rabies carriers are skunks, foxes and bats. With the exception of bats, most of these animals will die within 7 to ten days if infected.
LLNL doesn’t just focus on the rabies virus, however. It explores different groups, depending on their various mechanisms and carriers.
“Most labs focus on one virus. We try to focus on a few different groups of viruses. There are these certain criteria, but there are also certain limitations. Can you get a sample; can you get it to grow? And so on,” Borucki said.
While Borucki has her PhD in microbiology and is studying different viruses at the lab, Allen is more involved with the computer science aspect of it. The portion of his job that was stressed in the presentation was about genome sequencing technology, which in other words helps scientists break down the viruses.
One of sequencing’s successes has been to detect early on that HIV patients won’t respond to certain drugs. While next generation sequencing is still in its early stages, it is already producing benefits.
“Part of our motivation to doing this has really been driven by the advances that have been made in the HIV treatment area, where they’ve actually been able to see that for HIV patients that do not respond well to drugs, it turns out that sometimes they can make that prediction by seeing that population has a drug resistant mutation,” Allen said.
What does this all come down to? Allen had a simple response when an audience member asked about the defense applications of the lab’s research.
“I think the most immediate application is really helping out groups that are around the world and being able to understand what kind of viruses they’re being exposed to,” Allen said.
Many students took advantage of the question and answer session following the presentation, demonstrating the high level of interest in the fully packed room.
“First and foremost, my professor wanted me to come here and I thought it’d be interesting. I want to be an engineer,” James Heflin, LPC student majoring in aerospace engineering, said. “I was very interested in what they said about the rabies and the amount of people that are being infected. I thought it was very cool and very important.”