Edinboro Alumni Issue: Brandi Hobbs

Friday, September 28th, 2018 at 9:45 AM

The 1928 introduction of penicillin, in part, released humanity from the shackles of servitude that bound it to the whims of fate and luck. Medicine had finally triumphed against those obscure higher powers — and Alexander Flemming, discoverer of the antibiotic, was now a giant amongst men. It’s a story of almost biblical significance in the scientific community. And like many relics of ages gone by, it seems so very removed from the practice of science in 2018.

Humanity is now not solely fighting for freedom from the wars waged in the cells and atoms of bodies — but also from the senseless acts of evil committed by its own.

Brandi Hobbs is one of the people developing protective measures against new forms of biological terror.

“There are many potential pathogens capable of being weaponized for the purposes of bioterrorism,” Hobbs said in one of our earliest interviews.

The doctoral candidate in the molecular microbiology and immunology program at the University of Maryland has been working on developing vaccines for bacterial pathogens for nearly two years.

Hobbs didn’t grow up in a hubbub of excitement, but it was the correct setting for her future nonetheless. Until three years ago, the countryside of Edinboro was where she called home, two miles from the university campus.

“Growing up in the country and spending all of my time outdoors catching tadpoles in the pond and hellbenders (salamanders) from the creek, I got interested in biology,” she explained.

“However, it wasn’t until I started traveling the world and experiencing life in developing countries that I realized exactly what part of science I wanted to be a part of — vaccine development as well as in biodefense. Luckily, my project allows my two interests to intersect.”

Bioterrorism, or the study of pathogenic bacteria that might be used to harm humans or livestock, is quickly becoming one of the hottest areas of scientific study. A major concern among scientists is the potential for some of the deadliest antibiotic-resistant bacteria being engineered and transmitted into a large population. Organisms that have a high chance of being used in a bioterror attack are called “select agents.”

“To be considered a select agent, a pathogen must pose a severe threat to human health. However, it is important to note that there are also USDA select agents capable of decimating livestock and plant populations, rather than affecting human health, and a massive loss of agricultural goods could cause devastating effects,” Hobbs said.

She studies a select agent called Francisella tularensis, which causes Tularemia, an animal-born pathogen that can be transmitted from animals — usually hares or rabbits.

“Francisella can be transmitted to humans via multiple different routes and the resulting disease depends on the route of infection; contact with an infected animal or carcass, a bite from an infected arthropod, ingestion of contaminated food and water, and inhalation of aerosolized bacteria can all cause disease with varying levels of intensity,” she explained.

“However, inhalation of the bacteria causes the worst form of disease, pneumonic tularemia, which causes coughing, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and eventually, hemorrhagic inflammation of the airways and death. This has a fatality rate of up to 50 percent if left untreated.”

Hobbs graduated from Edinboro University in 2015, summa cum laude, with a degree in biology and minors in chemistry and environmental science. Her first research lab experience while at Edinboro is one she says played an important role in her deciding that research was the correct field. “My first research project was under the guidance of my undergrad research advisor, Dr. Matthew Foradori, where I worked on zymogram profiles (enzyme detection profiles) of select digestive fluid from several populations of Argiope aurantia (the black and yellow garden spider). I worked alongside him and a graduate student for several hours a week in between other classes and such. We worked in Doc’s lab, or the Genomics lab room, just the three of us. I have many happy memories laughing and learning with ‘Doc.”

Research at the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health (CVD), though, takes place in a larger setting. “Being a research university, we have science happening on a large scale. The collaboration and cooperation among the labs here is very inspiring.”

The schedule of research is also much different than in undergrad. “My days vary from day to day. Sometimes I have a big experiment going on that demands a lot of time in the animal facility or in the biosafety lab, and thus I spend less time at my desk. Other times, I spend more time reading papers, writing, planning experiments, all in between other smaller experiments. In short, there is always something going on or something to read. I am in [the] lab anywhere from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., depending on the experiment for the day, with occasional drop-ins for a couple hours on weekends.”

Bioterror defense is not the only research that Hobbs has interest in. During her undergrad, she participated in a study abroad trip with the now retired Dr. Cynthia Rebar.

“My love for Africa began when I went on an EUP study abroad trip with Dr. Rebar (African Conservation Experience), and everything I do is working to get back to Africa where I left my heart.”

Hobbs continued: “After I get my Ph.D., my goal is to work for a vaccine organization, such as GAVI, the vaccine alliance, where I would love a position traveling back and forth to Africa in support of vaccine development and delivery.”

For the girl that grew up amongst the creeks and rivers of Edinboro, the great task of saving lives from senseless tragedy and age old illness is “the coolest thing ever.”

Shayma Musa is the voices editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at voices.spectator@gmail.com.

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