Montana State University

MSU student wins international speaking honor, American Heart Association fellowship

October 17, 2013 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Montana State University doctoral student Oliwia Zurek earned one of two Young Scientist Awards for outstanding scientific presentation for a talk she gave at the International Conference on Gram-Positive Microorganisms, held this summer in Italy. Zurek also won a competitive $50,000 pre-doctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association to support her work with Voyich on understanding how staph bacteria interact with the human immune system. MSU photo by Sepp Jannotta.   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University doctoral student Oliwia Zurek gave a talk that turned heads during the International Conference on Gram-Positive Microorganisms, held this summer in Italy. The talk also earned her one of two Young Scientist Awards for outstanding scientific presentation.

“The large majority of the competition at this international conference was postdoctoral scholars with many additional years of experience compared to Oliwia,” said Jovanka Voyich, associate professor in MSU’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and Zurek’s research mentor in looking at how human immunity causes certain staph bacteria to release infection-causing toxins. “The award showcases her presentation skills and the impact of her research at the global level. It is really very impressive that she outshined the competition.”

Zurek, who was born in Poland and spent her high school years outside Chicago, said it was a privilege to present the work in Italy, where the audience included some of the world’s leading researchers in the realm of important bacterial pathogens that includes Streptococcus pyogenes (strep throat), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, and anthrax.

Now, with a competitive $50,000 pre-doctoral fellowship, the American Heart Association has also recognized that Zurek’s work with Voyich is contributing to a fundamental understanding of how staph bacteria interact with the human immune system.

Awarded by the AHA National Research Program, Zurek’s fellowship was one of fewer than a thousand funded for 2013 from an application pool of 6,108 researchers seeking funding.

The AHA funding will provide Zurek $25,000 per year for what she projects will be the final two years of her doctoral work on the role of the host immune system in staph virulence. The work is being done as part of a larger National Institutes of Health-funded investigation into questions of innate immunity in Voyich’s lab.

Zurek said the AHA fellowship is aimed at research that tackles basic science, which is essential to address direct concerns of industry. Zurek is addressing some important questions about the behavior of MRSA, which is a bane of hospitals and recently received widespread press attention following a MRSA outbreak within the Tampa Bay Buccaneers professional football team.

Last spring, Zurek was the lead author on a paper detailing a study that used a genetic modeling assay, QuantiGene 2.0, to follow the expression of genes responsible for a toxic response from staph bacteria. QuantiGene 2.0 serves to measure expression of staph genes in a more precise and efficient way than previous techniques.

Counter to the prevailing wisdom on the behavior of MRSA, which presumes there is an organism-wide response in the presence of any type of environmental stress, Zurek’s research points to specific staph receptors being the trigger for toxin production.

“This award and invitations to present my paper give me added motivation to keep moving forward with my research project,” said Zurek, who was also invited to give a talk at London University College in the United Kingdom. “It is exciting because it is also an opportunity to showcase the work we’re doing with QuantiGene 2.0 assays here at MSU. The invites are due in part to using the new technology to study bacterial gene expression during interaction with a host.”

The AHA has an interest in staph research given that MRSA is the leading cause of complications from infection following invasive heart procedures, particularly an infection called invasive endocarditis.

“The American Heart Association is interested in basic research on how MRSA is behaving in the presence of human blood cells,” Zurek said. “And, of course, looking at staph responses to the host can aid in questions about how MRSA can cause endocarditis infections.”

Zurek said the recognition of her research was really recognition of the work Voyich is heading in her lab at MSU’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases. Zurek said she was also grateful for Voyich’s help in applying for an AHA fellowship.

“When you think about her outstanding mentorship on my research, a lot of the credit has to go to Jovanka,” Zurek said.

Voyich turned that praise around on Zurek.

“Oliwia is an outstanding graduate student and receiving the AHA fellowship exemplifies her work ethic and intellectual capacity,” Voyich said. “She has been a joy to mentor, so it is both rewarding and fun to watch her achieve such great honors.”  

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371, seppjannotta@montana.edu.