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Scarlet Bliss, Undergraduate Laidlaw Fellow

Fall 2019 Featured Trainee:

Scarlet Bliss

  • Laidlaw Scholar working with CIMAR’s Drs. Amy Pickering and Carol Bascom-Slack to incorporate molecular methods into the PARE (Prevalence of Antibiotic Resistance in the Environment) project

Scarlet Bliss is a junior at Tufts University and a winner of the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Program Scholarship. Funded by Lord Irvine Laidlaw of Rothiemay, the international program provides scholarship winners with hands-on research experience to prepare them to serve as future leaders in their respective fields. The scholarship funds undergraduate students over the course of two consecutive summers to pursue a research project of their choosing.

A Community Health and Biology major, Scarlet chose to do her Laidlaw research with CIMAR’s Drs. Amy Pickering and Carol Bascom-Slack, working on the PARE (Prevalence of Antibiotic Resistance in the Environment) project. PARE is a citizen science-based research tool to analyze antibiotic resistance in the environment while providing an opportunity to teach students applicable and meaningful laboratory skills and research methods. The intent of the project is to produce a low-cost and straightforward teaching module for instructors to educate their students, at the undergraduate or high school level, on prevalence of antibiotic resistance in environmental samples through PCR and sequencing methods that are easily accessible. Synthetic eDNA may be used in a miniPCR kit to teach this process to students, but there is currently no way to target rare antibiotic-resistant genes in the classroom setting. The goal of Scarlet’s research is to optimize the miniPCR and blueGel systems with extracted eDNA so that they are sensitive enough to detect these rarer genes from real environmental samples. Eventually, this PARE project data may help map “hotspots” of AMR throughout the United States to support hypotheses of emerging locations of higher AMR prevalence. By alerting scientists and medical professionals to hotspots early on, this kind of information could ultimately help prevent outbreaks of diseases caused by AMR bacteria.

Previously, Scarlet studied vector-borne diseases in the Semliki Forest Complex in American Samoa with the Dr. Steven Williams Lab at Smith College. In 2018, she worked with Dr. Williams’ team as they developed a single, accessible test for Samoans to know whether they had contracted any vector-borne virus in a particular family.

Scarlet grew up in Goshen, Massachusetts, and attended Northampton High School where she was named valedictorian, secretary of the National Honor Society, captain of the Varsity Track & Field team, and team captain for the Sugarloaf Youth Track Team. At Tufts, Scarlet is interested in medicine in the context of public health, infectious disease transmission and global health issues, and climate and environmental health. In addition to her PARE research project in the Pickering Lab, Scarlet has worked as a Communications and Outreach Intern for the Environmental Studies Program at Tufts. She is also part of Timmy Global Health, a nonprofit working to expand access to healthcare, and she runs for the Tufts Women’s Track & Field team.

For her Environmental Studies program, Scarlet coordinated and advertised the weekly Lunch & Learn series, which has recently been endowed for the program due to its success. Additionally, she organized a student internship symposium for undergraduates to present their required internship or research as part of their major and helped put on “BugFeast!” – an educational edible insect festival in conjunction with Brooklyn Bugs of New York and Dr. Sara Lewis of the Tufts Department of Biology.

We recently sat down with Scarlet to ask her about her research.

CIMAR: What do you hope to achieve as an undergraduate, and where do you see yourself ending up once this portion of your education is over? Would you be interested in further pursuing AMR-related research?

SB: My goal with the PARE research I am conducting for my Laidlaw Scholarship is to develop a teaching module that works with the miniPCR AMR teaching guide already in use, that would allow students to test for AMR on four emergent markers (in DNA from soil samples) that I am researching. All four markers—Bla(NDM-1), Bla(CTX-M-15), ArmA and mcr-1—hold medical significance either in the Boston area or in current antibiotic resistance trends worldwide. Hopefully I will translate this work into a senior honors thesis at Tufts, and work towards publishing the results of the project. The environmental health and molecular biology components of the AMR research that CIMAR does really interests me, and so does environmental engineering research in general. Since starting work in the Pickering Lab, I have been thinking about pursuing a graduate degree in environmental engineering and one day working in public health consulting, public health research or academia.

 CIMAR: What have you learned from PARE? Did anything surprise you?

SB: This is my first real experience seeing a research project come to fruition, and it is an exciting and challenging process. I have learned so much along the way, and mainly have been surprised and humbled by the complexity of carrying out research that will have meaningful and impactful results. I am excited to see if the PARE project can extend to an international setting next summer; if we can produce a successful teaching module for these emergent markers, I would like to share it with schools in Kenya, where the Pickering Lab conducts research.

I think the integrated approach that CIMAR takes to combatting antibiotic resistance is more impactful than keeping research, education and outreach as separate entities. The PARE project also combines environmental health research with citizen science applications to improve AMR awareness nationally, and this combination of is what excites me about the future of my Laidlaw project and of scientific research worldwide.