Thompson Rivers University

Microbiology Research—Q & A with Alison McClean

March 24, 2014

Alison McClean

Alison McClean displays images of striking but potentially deadly C. difficile bacteria. She is experimenting with a new method of detecting infection.

Meet Alison McClean, a fourth-year Bachelor of Science student majoring in Cellular, Molecular and Microbial Biology. The Newsroom asked Alison about the ins and outs of conducting her own research project through TRU’s Undergraduate Research Experience Award Program (UREAP).

TRU: Your project is titled, “Detection of Clostridium difficile toxin B using matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionisation time-of-flight mass spectrometry”. Boil it down for us.

AM: I am working on an alternative method to detect one of the major toxins—called toxin B—produced by the bacterium Clostridium difficile, which is frequently involved in hospital-related illness. The effects of pathogenic C. difficile infections (CDI) can range from asymptomatic colonization to patient death, so early and accurate detection is critical, but current methods of testing can be time-consuming and inconclusive. Detection of the toxin would be a more accurate and direct way to diagnose a CDI.

For this project I am trying a method of C. difficile toxin B detection using a Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionisation Time-of-Flight mass spectrometer (MALDI-TOF MS). MALDI-TOF MS is considered a rapid and reliable way to identify clinically relevant bacteria and their proteins.

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TRU: What attracted you to doing this research?

AM: I wanted to gain invaluable experience working in the lab and learning from my supervisor Dr. Naowarat (Ann) Cheeptham, and co-supervisors Dr. Kingsley Donkor and adjunct professor Dr. Ken Wagner, MD. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of their collaboration with Royal Inland Hospital’s Microbiology Laboratories.

TRU: How has your UREAP grant helped you get into doing research?

AM: The award allowed me to focus on my research rather than part-time work during my final year at TRU.

TRU: Will your project lead to a presentation or publishing opportunity?

AM: I will be presenting my research at the TRU Undergraduate Research and Innovation Conference in March. Although my results are still preliminary, I hope to publish my findings in the future.

“Doing an independent research project is a lot like being an explorer in a foreign territory.” —Alison McClean

TRU: What have you learned from this experience?

AM: I am working on protocol development, which requires a lot of literature review and trial and error. Doing an independent research project is a lot like being an explorer in a foreign territory. Research requires you to make a map of where you’ve been and where you are going. There are a lot of deviations from the path you thought you’d take, so you have to be dynamic. Hopefully in the end you have a good map but I think it’s more about the journey than the destination.

I’ve learned research is about making mistakes. For me it was a steep learning curve but I am happy I did undergraduate research because it gives you the opportunity to stand on your own two feet.

TRU: Who in your field do you admire and why?

AM: There are many people in my field to admire; Dr. Cheeptham is one of those people. She is an innovative researcher and I admire her passion for science and teaching.

TRU: What impact do you hope your research will have?

AM: I hope that my research will lead to a rapid, reliable, and cost-effective way to identify C. difficile infections.

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The photos Alison is holding can be found here.

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