For Blacksburg native Amber Abbott, attending Virginia Tech for her undergraduate degree was a no-brainer. Trying to figure out what major she wanted to devote her college years to was a different story.

As a student at Blacksburg High School, her interest in science was ignited by her AP Biology class. At the time, she wanted to major in food science and technology, but she finally chose microbiology in the College of Science due to its broader scope.

“I just knew I enjoyed that small section in AP Bio, and I thought ‘Okay, let's just go with it and see what happens.’ Now I'm really glad I did because now I know I'm more interested in infectious disease,” Abbott said.

It was during the second semester of her freshman year that Abbott began to shadow scientists in Andrea Bertke's lab. Bertke is an assistant professor of infectious diseases in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virgina-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. That summer, she decided to join the Bertke Lab part-time.

Abbott is one of 15 recipients of the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a program created by Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Science Institute, in partnership with the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The program seeks to fund students from underrepresented groups to increase diversity in undergraduate research. Each Fellow receives $1,000 to conduct research over the course of one academic year. Additionally, the Fellows develop a close mentoring relationship with their faculty advisor.

From 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. on Friday, April 19, the Fellows will present their research at the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference in the Moss Arts Center. The Fellows, along with other Virginia Tech students, will be presenting posters and e-portfolios showcasing their work as undergraduate researchers. Dean will kick-off the Keynote event with a welcome at 11:10 a.m. This event is open to the public, and the Moss Arts Center is located at 190 Alumni Mall in Blacksburg.

Abbott’s first project in the Bertke lab focused on the accumulation of Alzheimer’s-related proteins as a result of being infected with herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV 1).

HSV 1 and HSV 2 are highly contagious viruses that are often associated with cold sores around the mouth and genital sores. Due to the virus’ complex mechanisms, which allow them to remain latent within the human body, the disease can often go unnoticed.

According to Abbott, “There are different mechanisms that regulate how HSV 1 and HSV 2 can remain latent in cells. When the cell is initially infected,  either the virus replicates and then kills the cell, or it can just stay there. It's not replicating, but the DNA is still in the cell and then later on, in response to some sort of trigger, like stress, the virus can then reactivate to cause physical symptoms.”

The summer after her sophomore year, as her research journey was taking hold, Abbott received the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) from the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech.

SURF is a 10-week training program that gives ambitious Virginia Tech undergraduates the opportunity to engage in full-time research with a faculty member. The fellowship offers the students experiences that will simultaneously help them pursue a career in research, while developing the necessary skills for the next step: graduate school.

With SURF under her wing and using the results from her first project, Amber and the Bertke team tackled a second project. Abbott’s second, and most recent, project involves inspecting the different molecular processes and factors that influence the reactivation of HSV 1 and HSV 2.  Abbot worked on this project during the 2018-2019 academic year as a Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellow.

It was previously discovered that some types of neurotrophic factors —molecules that support the growth and survival of neurons — help maintain HSV latency in neurons. The Bertke lab discovered a few years ago that depriving adult sensory neurons of certain neurotrophic factors causes HSV reactivation. “The particular neurotrophic factors I’m studying bind to a cell surface protein called Ret, which can initiate multiple cell signaling pathways, and I am trying to determine which pathway is related to HSV reactivation,” says Abbott.

So far, what Abbot has found is that it might not be the specific pathway the Bertke lab had initially thought, which is interesting because it has implications for how the viruses behave differently in different types of neurons. "The ultimate goal is to find a way to lock the virus in a latent state, and if we can figure out how Ret controls reactivation, that would take us one step closer to that goal,” said Abbott. 

In regards to her two research experiences, Abbott said, “I just think it's made me more of a mature person, and I’ve learned how to think differently and how to think more analytically as well. I'm very grateful for all that I have been able to do because of the Fralin Fellowships.”

In the future, Abbott hopes to attain a Ph.D. in infectious disease. “I like knowing that I can help discover something that no one has before. No one else is doing this. I think that's pretty exciting, and I guess that's what keeps me going, even if it gets hard.”

-Written by Kendall Daniels

Share this story