Health & Environment

Biology Student’s Passion To Cure C. Diff Takes Her To Haiti

March 27, 2017

Texas A&M sophomore biology major Avery Young '19 (standing in back of vehicle), distributes bags of food in Haiti.
Texas A&M sophomore biology major Avery Young ’19 (standing in back of vehicle), distributes bags of food in Haiti.
By Chris Jarvis, Texas A&M University College of Science

Avery Young ’19 developed a deep interest in infectious diseases long before she ever stepped foot inside a Texas A&M University research laboratory.

The sophomore biology major began volunteering for medical mission trips with Friends of Fort Liberté, a non-profit organization that provides aid to the community of Fort Liberté, Haiti, when she was only 16. For two weeks each year, she assists doctors in a rural, sparsely stocked clinic as they treat illnesses and administer vaccinations to the locals.

“Infectious diseases in third-world countries — it’s definitely more prevalent there than it is here,” Young said. “It’s hard to have to see people with these things, but it’s also fascinating to me. My passion definitely came from that experience.”

Avery Young (right) interacted with children regularly while in Haiti.
Avery Young (right) interacted with children regularly while in Haiti.

But it was one moment in particular during her very first trip in 2013 that set her academic trajectory in motion. Young was tasked with caring for a four-month-old baby girl. As Young washed the weak, malnourished and scabies-covered child in a medicated bath to treat her painful sores, she wished there was a way she could do more.

She decided there was.
When the time came to apply for college, Young scoured tier-one research institutions with a critical, hopeful eye, ultimately deciding on Texas A&M. Once she officially enrolled as a freshman for fall 2016, Young wasted little time in searching for undergraduate research opportunities. One professor’s research focus especially piqued her interest — that of Dr. Joseph Sorg, a leading expert on the dangerous bacterial pathogen Clostridium difficile in the Texas A&M Department of Biology.

“I emailed him, stating that I was just a lowly freshman with almost no lab experience,” Young said. “He was more than willing to take a chance on me. He’s amazing.”

Watch an interview with Avery Young ’19 about her research on Clostridium difficile and how she hopes to make a difference by finding a cure:

C. difficile is an intestinal bacterium that secretes toxins which cause life-threatening diarrhea, high fevers and severe inflammation of the colon. Infections occur predominantly in healthcare environments, most often afflicting patients who are prescribed antibiotics for long periods of time. While various antibiotics are used to treat related infections, they also can disrupt the natural order of flora in the gut, creating an opportunity for infection in the imbalanced bacterial ecosystem. This enables the prolific spore-forming invader to colonize, leading to a devastatingly painful and sometimes fatal inflammation of the colon.

Young joined Sorg’s lab last fall and has since begun investigating ways to manipulate the C. difficile genome and the physiological and metabolic consequences of gene knockouts — work that will help the group’s overarching goal of identifying more efficient methods to treat and ideally prevent C. difficile infections.

Sorg describes Young’s enthusiasm for research as — no pun intended — “infectious.”

“Science can get you down sometimes just due to the nature of things not working right or your hypothesis not working out, but keeping a positive attitude about it and rolling with the punches, I think, is good for life in general and especially in science,” Sorg said. “That excitedness transmits to people who work around her.”

Young’s initial trepidation about her inexperience with research dissipated when she was welcomed into the lab with open arms. She says Sorg and the graduate students were quick to help her gain her footing as they trained her in day-to-day operations and other necessary protocols.

With her sights already set toward graduate school, Young is grateful for a laboratory in which to hone her skills and the invaluable mentorship she’s found at Texas A&M.

“Based on the support I’m getting from the graduate students in the lab and Dr. Sorg, I 100 percent feel ready for anything graduate school could throw at me,” Young said. “Even if I’m out of my element initially, I’ve definitely gained the confidence to try and figure it out myself.”

But that’s at least a couple of years away. Right now, Young is fixated on her research and the role it might play in one day eradicating a debilitating medical condition and global health issue. And though she may be worlds away, she still frequently thinks about the Haitian child who inspired her to one day make a career out of curing others.

“It’s awesome to be able to say that I’m working on this,” Young said. “If there’s anything I can do to contribute to helping fight C. diff, it would just make me feel amazing.”

Learn more about Sorg’s lab or undergraduate research opportunities in the Texas A&M Department of Biology.

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This story by Chris Jarvis was originally posted on the College of Science website.

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