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Among the doctoral students who work in the microbiology lab of
Prof. Ramona Neunuebel (center) are (left to right): Rebecca Noll,
Samual Allgood, Barbara Romero-Dueñas and Colleen Pike.
Neunuebel, assistant professor of biological sciences at the University
of Delaware, has won a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF)
Faculty Early Career Development Award to support her research on the
survival strategies of bacteria.
With the five-year, $750,498 grant,
NSF recognizes the significant potential of Neunuebel’s work, which
focuses on how Legionella pneumophila bacteria elude and manipulate the
defense systems of the host cells they target and infiltrate.
The Legionella bacterium is named for a 1976 outbreak of respiratory
disease that it caused during an American Legion convention in
Philadelphia. The bacterium lends itself well to Neunuebel’s research
questions because it does extraordinary things to thrive and multiply
once it enters a cell.
Amoebas have been a “training ground for microbial pathogens” ever
since they started interacting with bacteria billions of years ago,
Neunuebel said. When Legionella meets an amoeba, for example, the amoeba
wraps itself around the bacterium and starts a process to degrade and
ultimately kill the intruder. But this bacterium has other plans. Once
engulfed by the host cell, it remodels the membrane of what was meant to
be a death chamber into a separate cocoon-like place where it not only
escapes certain death but is able to multiply.
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UD microbiologist Ramona Neunuebel
“It’s molecular camouflage,” Neunuebel said. “For healthy
individuals, it is usually not an issue. But for those whose immune
systems are compromised or weakened, they could be at risk for
developing a serious and potentially fatal form of pneumonia.”
How it does that is not well understood — and that is the immediate
question Neunuebel’s lab is addressing. How does Legionella target and
change the host cell’s membrane?
It’s fundamental work that will shed new light on the devices used by
bacteria of other kinds that create their own protective compartments
and could have implications for research in related diseases including
tuberculosis, Q Fever, brucellosis and tularemia.
The NSF grant also supports her
ongoing work to help young students explore biology and develop a
“science identity” — helping them imagine themselves as someone who
could succeed as a scientist. She has several strategies for that,
including curriculum development with underrepresented minority students
and the ongoing work she and students in her lab have done with UD’s
Upward Bound Math/Science program and the Delaware Children’s Museum’s
“Try Science” series.
That outreach is a part of her work as a researcher and professor that she feels strongly about.
“Being a scientist is more than managing a lab and doing experiments
to test new hypotheses,” Neunuebel said. “That’s all part of the job,
but that’s not all it is for me. I love thinking about how to engage
Opportunities were not plentiful when she was growing up in Romania,
Neunuebel said, and she wasn’t inclined to study medicine as her parents
suggested. But her interest in biology grew and during her studies at
Babeș-Bolyai University she volunteered in the lab of molecular
biologist Nicolae Dragoș, working with cyanobacteria. “This is where my
love for scientific research began,” Neunuebel said.
Upward Bound students, including Tranicka Harrell and Marissa
Brown, learned important lab skills during a summer program in Neunuebel’s lab.
Now, she hopes to help ignite interest in science and expand the options for others.
The Upward Bound program offers four years of support and opportunity
for 66 students from challenging socio-economic situations. UD’s
chapter works with students from five area high schools including
McKean, Glasgow and Newark high schools in Delaware, and Elkton and
North East high schools in Maryland.
“She has been extremely supportive and so impactful for the
students,” said Camille Sims-Johnson, director of UD’s UBMS program.
“And the students are ready to go — you hear it in their conversations.
We see their grades go up just from having the lab experience. We get
those reports from [school] counselors all the time.
“She is one of the best. She really cares about these kids.”
A new UD doctoral student on a three-month rotation in her lab knows
the value of Upward Bound in a personal way. Ron McMillan, who grew up
in Wilmington, Delaware, and got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at
North Carolina Central University, was part of the program when he was a
student at Mount Pleasant High School. He was excited to hear about
Neunuebel’s involvement in the program.
“Upward Bound was a catalyst that allowed me to see myself in
school,” said McMillan. “It helped me out and people mentored me…. And
it’s really important for me to be getting involved with the youth,
especially those from underrepresented and underprivileged backgrounds.”
Ramona Neunuebel is an assistant professor of biological sciences at
UD, whose focus is on microbiology, especially bacterial pathogens and
their survival strategies. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s
degrees at Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania and her doctorate at Texas
A&M University. Before joining UD’s faculty in 2014, she did
postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health.
Article by Beth Miller; photos by Evan Krape and Julia Sosa