Kari Ann Sweeney '03

Kari Ann SweeneyDegree: B.A. in biology, Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology

Job Title: Post-doctoral research fellow at Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Reporter: How is the TB vaccine you're working on now different from the current vaccine?
Sweeney: The vaccine we are working on has a variety of differences from BCG (the only vaccine currently available to the public). First, it is based on a strain of mycobacteria that is considered to be largely non-pathogenic, whereas the parent of the BCG strain is hugely infectious in animals and some humans. In addition, the strain we are working with has been made even safer through the deletion of virulence genes. This vaccine can be safely administered to a variety of immuno-deficient and immunocompromised mammals, which cannot be said for BCG.

Reporter: Why do you feel it's particularly important to work on a new TB vaccine?
Sweeney: It is very important to work on a new vaccine because of the varying efficacy of the BCG vaccine. Its effectiveness ranges from 0 percent to 80 percent around the world. It is least effective in those areas that need it most, namely Africa and India. The WHO no longer recommends BCG vaccination of infants of HIV positive mothers or infants that are HIV positive themselves. This practice has been altered because of the growing number of HIV positive infants getting sick and even dying from the BCG vaccine itself. This is a critical problem, since HIV and TB co-infection is extremely prevalent, and those individuals that develop AIDS typically die from TB. In addition, the prevalence of drug-resistant strains of M. tuberculosis is increasing in the world. Thus a new vaccine that can be administered to those individuals that are immuno-compromised and that can show efficacy consistently around the world is in dire need.

Reporter: What does a typical day look like for a researcher such as yourself?
Sweeney: The day typically begins as most days would for other people: checking e-mail, responding to messages, and planning the day. But the e-mail correspondence is usually from collaborating labs around the world asking for advice or suggestions or providing results from experiments that they recently conducted. This knowledge sharing is a critical part of being a researcher, utilizing other labs' strengths and knowledge in certain aspects of research that complements your own. Since I work with vaccines, the rest of my day consists of working with mice. I typically have at least five experiments actively running at once, each consisting of at least 200 mice. In addition, I have a number of mouse experiments that are not actively running, but we are looking for survival with these mice. Thus, at any given time I am dealing with 1,500 to 2,000 mice, all with different infections or vaccination regimens that have to be kept in order. After this, the day typically ends with meetings within the lab, or with other collaborating labs at the medical school. We discuss current projects and experiments, and what is needed to move to the next step, either publishing the work, or patenting and licensing it.

Reporter: Was there a certain professor, class, or experience you had at Trinity that has shaped who you are or what you do?
Sweeney: Professor Lisa Foster shaped what I decided to do with my career. I met her in my first year of college, since I participated in the Interdisciplinary Science Program, and I worked in her lab. I enjoyed the discovery process and problem-solving that went into designing, planning, and executing experiments, and Professor Foster helped me throughout it all. In addition, I took classes such as biochemistry, cell biology, and biology of infectious diseases. Professor Foster taught most of these classes, and working in her lab, seeing the enthusiasm with which she taught these subjects, and seeing her own thirst for knowledge really fueled my interest in the field of science.

Reporter: What made you decide to go into research rather than practicing medicine?
Sweeney: At the end of my junior year, Professor Foster encouraged me to apply for a research grant, provided by the American Society for Microbiology. I was dubious at first about applying since I had never done something like this before, but with her encouragement and guidance, I decided to apply. I won the scholarship and stayed at Trinity the summer between my junior and senior years, conducting research and generally having a great time! Over the summer, I started thinking about what I wanted to do, attend medical school or go into a Ph.D. program and do research. After many long discussions with Professor Foster, I got the sage advice to think about this-when I wake up in the morning, what I would be excited to do every day of my life, and what did I feel most passionate about. I realized that I am a problem solver. Thus, I decided that research was the perfect fit, which is why I decided to go into research and be able to develop tools or treatments for the benefit of the human population. Helping a few people every day doesn't satisfy me, I want to help the whole world, and I feel that research helps me accomplish this.

*This article originally appeared in the Trinity Reporter.