Though 18-year-old Audrey DeGraw’s grandfather was a member of the Onondaga nation, it took a trip to California last week for the ACPHS sophomore to find her tribe.
It also took a bona fide scientific discovery to get there – the identification of a novel virus found in a soil sample in Albany’s Lincoln Park.
DeGraw, a microbiology student, attended the national conference of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) in Palm Springs, Calif., where she presented a poster detailing research she conducted with classmates Amalia Nunes and Elias Morales. The opportunity came about through DeGraw’s participation in the SEA-PHAGES program offered by ACPHS and her long-held interest in attending an AISES conference.
There are two threads to DeGraw’s story, both involving genetics. One concerns the sequencing of the genome of a tiny, ubiquitous organism. The other involves a deeply held desire derived from DeGraw’s own genetic code.
First, the academics.
DeGraw, Nunes and Morales were among the first group of freshmen to participate in the SEA-PHAGES program at ACPHS, under the supervision of Assistant Professor Pradeepa Jayachandran and Lab Instructor Bowen Meng. The program, developed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is designed to allow first-year students to conduct scientific research at a professional level – worthy of presentation at a national conference.
Through the program, students collect soil samples and search them for bacteriophages – viruses that affect bacteria like the one DeGraw and her team found. SEA-PHAGES stands for Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science.
The ACPHS team learned to isolate and purify the phage through serial dilution and picking a plaque. They then used web plate methods to amplify the phage and later extracted the DNA. After obtaining the DNA sequence, they used various informatics tools to annotate the genome.
The program is suitable for freshman because students do not need the advanced training required to work with pathogens, Jayachandran said. The bacteria and viruses they work with do not cause disease in humans.
The students named their newly found virus Patos, which means “ducks” in both Portuguese and Spanish, the heritages of Nunes and Morales, respectively. The name came from the ducks they saw in Washington Park, where soil they collected was not so bountiful with bacteria as in Lincoln Park, where the bacteriophage was found. Nonetheless, they liked the association, and that the word was the same in both languages – so the Washington Park ducks got a nod.
Patos was then catalogued in an international database of actinobacteriophages. The database will help scientists learn more about the evolution of these ancient, ubiquitous organisms.
For a budding 18-year-old scientist, that’s thrilling.
“Genetics is just something that excites me,” said DeGraw, who described herself as naturally curious. “Any type of research really excites me. I really like hands-on stuff – a lot of the lab techniques that we learned in ‘phage’” – which is what she and fellow students call the class.
Even more amazing is the possibility that the bacteriophages could be used in treatment of diseases that are antibiotic resistant.
In one known case, a 15-year-old cystic fibrosis patient in London who developed tuberculosis was treated with a phage catalogued in the Actinobacteriophage Database, Jayachandran explained. The genetic sequencing of the virus showed that it would attack the bacteria causing the patient’s infection. The results were published in the May 2019 issue of Nature Medicine.
Next, the heritage connection.
Many students who take part in SEA-PHAGES present their research at a scientific conference specifically for program participants, Meng said. But DeGraw wanted something different. She knew about AISES through her aunt, a chemical engineer who once presented research at an AISES conference.
DeGraw’s sense of her indigenous heritage is deep, she said, inherited from her maternal grandfather, who was a member of the Onondaga Nation. She wears jewelry crafted by Native artisans and always wears her hair – a representation of the spirit – long or braided. Braiding, she said, is intentional, something to meditate on while you are doing it.
But because the Onondaga are matrilineal – kinship is defined through the mother – DeGraw, her mother, and her aunt are not considered part of the tribe. By another controversial measure known as “blood quantum,” DeGraw is just one-quarter Native American.
DeGraw is reserved and polite but admitted to a little sting in her lack of recognition. As a researcher, she is hurt that she has no more access to Onondaga Nation resources than any other member of the public.
“I’m still able to learn about my culture, but only what the Nation will let the public know,” she said. “I want to learn the Onondaga language, but I’m not allowed to.”
DeGraw had little connection to indigenous culture outside her own family while growing up in the small Oswego County village of Pulaski, she said. She knew no other people of indigenous heritage. Now at ACPHS, she knows just a few others on campus.
For her, the AISES conference was, of course, an opportunity to network and learn about potential internship experiences or laboratories where she might want to work one day. And it was also about being part of a gathering of her own people – scientific researchers of indigenous heritage.
Last week, as she was preparing to leave for the conference in Palm Springs, she was a little nervous. She has a long history of speaking in public, going back to her debut county fair presentation at age 10 on the life cycle of the butterfly. But she had never presented to other scientists before. She was also apprehensive about flying across the country – her first time on an airplane.
Yet she was also clearly excited about unique aspects of the conference. Following her poster presentation, for example, she would participate in a talking circle – an open conversation in which she would share what she had learned, in Native American fashion, rather than lecturing about it. There was a pow-wow on the agenda with different tribal dances being performed.
“This is a college and career fair, this is a STEM conference, but it’s also an indigenous conference,” she said. “This is for us to come together and celebrate being indigenous or first peoples.”