microLife Poster Prize: Ashley Wilkins

Congratulations to Ashley Wilkins, PhD Candidate in Microbiology and Immunology at LSU Health Shreveport (USA) for winning a Poster Prize at the Gordon Research Conference on Microbial Adhesion and Signal Transduction (GRC-MAST). This conference took place at Salve Regina University (USA) on 16 – 21 July 2023.

Ashley Wilkins receives her microLife Poster Prize certificate.

This award is sponsored by our journal microLife and as well as receiving a cash prize, we interviewed Ashley find out more about her prize winning research:

What is your current position, and what was your scientific journey to get there? 

I am currently a 5th year Doctoral Candidate at LSU Health Shreveport School of Graduate Studies in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in Shreveport, Louisiana. Prior to coming to LSU Health Shreveport, I obtained an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Pharmacy Technology from Austin Community College in Austin, Texas and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Microbiology and Immunology from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC) in Corpus Christi, Texas. My mentor at TAMU-CC (Dr. Gregory Buck) inspired me to apply to graduate programs. I went on to get my Master of Science in Microbiology and Immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. My mentor at Tulane (Dr. Lisa Morici) introduced me to the doctoral program at LSU Health Shreveport, where I study the pathogenesis of Legionella pneumophila in the lab of Dr. Stanimir Ivanov. Under Dr. Ivanov’s mentorship and guidance, I was able to secure an Ike Muslow Predoctoral Fellow to fund my research until graduation.

Could you provide a brief and simple overview of the topic your poster covers?  

Ashley Wilkins with her prize winning poster.

Intracellular survival of Lp is dependent on a conserved, type 4b secretion system called the Dot/Icm apparatus, whose effector repertoire function to facilitate the creation of a unique, ER-derived, membrane-bound compartment within the macrophage called the Legionella-containing vacuole (LCV). It’s within the LCV that Lp survives and replicates. Therefore, membrane integrity of the LCV is critical for the survival of Lp. To support bacterial replication, the LCV membrane must expand, and this expansion requires a steady supply of host lipids. My research focuses on understanding expansion of the LCV membrane and identifying host-derived lipids that either positively or negatively impact LCV homeostasis. The poster I presented at GRC MAST 2023 showed some of our findings. The omega-7 monounsaturated fatty acid, palmitoleic acid, increases Lp growth in macrophage infections, while supplementation with its saturated counterpart, palmitic acid, restricted bacterial replication.

What do you hope to focus your research on in the future?  

I have been passionate about microbiology for as long as I can remember so I’ll definitely be at the bench for the foreseeable feature. I’m currently working to unravel the mechanism of how palmitoleic acid enhance Lp intracellular replication in macrophage infections and how this correlates with human infections of Legionnaires’ disease.

In the not-so-distant future, I want to use the skills and knowledge I’ve gained during my PhD to try to understand how other pathogenic microbes subvert the host’s immune system to promote their own survival.

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