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Syracuse University student receives top honors for research on 1918 influenza virus
Syracuse University student receives top honors for research on 1918 influenza virusJune 05, 2009Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
When the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic first made headlines in April, Syracuse University senior Suzanne Vroman couldn’t help but compare the results of her recent research on the 1918 influenza pandemic with the scientific, social and political events triggered by the H1N1 outbreak here and across the globe.
Vroman, who graduated in May from SU’s College of Arts and Sciences with a dual degree in biochemistry and history, studied the 1918 pandemic for her capstone project for the Renee Crown University Honors Program. Half of the 103-page thesis detailed her laboratory research on a component of the actual 1918 virus, while the other half analyzed the political, social and public health issues surrounding the pandemic.
Her project won the 2009 Honors Program Capstone Award for the best capstone project in both the Natural and Applied Sciences and Social Sciences categories. No prior capstone project has won an award in more than one category. In August, Vroman will begin a joint Ph.D. in immunology and master’s degree in public health at Northwestern University in Chicago.
To learn about the 1918 virus, Vroman spent nine months (two summers and one semester) working in the laboratory of Michael G. Katze, associate director and core staff scientist at the Washington National Primate Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle and one of the country’s foremost experts on viral pathogens.
“When I first started thinking about my capstone topic, I looked for scientists who were working on the 1918 virus,” Vroman says. “The Katze Lab was one of the few. I knew I just had to go there.”
A letter of recommendation from Robert Doyle, SU assistant professor of chemistry, and a Crown research scholarship, as well as support from the College’s iLearn Program and the Mark and Pearle Clements Internship Award, landed Vroman a spot in the Katze Lab, which rarely takes undergraduate students. Vroman, however, had been working in Doyle’s lab since her freshman year on a research project involving a bacterium that is closely related to tuberculosis. The skills she acquired at SU served her well in the Katze Lab, and she was invited back after the first summer to conduct more extensive experiments for her capstone project.
Researchers in the Katze Lab focus on determining why some forms of influenza viruses are more virulent than others. Vroman worked on a protein from the 1918 virus that has similarities to other influenza viruses. She also studied a protein that is found in the cells of all living organisms, which is used by the influenza virus to reproduce faster in host organisms.
Concurrently with her laboratory research, Vroman put on her social sciences hat to investigate how government and other public agencies responded to the 1918 epidemic, as compared to modern pandemic planning efforts. She used Syracuse, New York City and Princeton as case studies.
“Most of my research involved non-pharmaceutical interventions,” Vroman says. “I found that many of the recommendations made in 1918 were very similar to those made this spring during the H1N1 epidemic, barring the occasional bizarre instructions in 1918.”
In both outbreaks, schools were closed, face masks were issued, and people were told to wash hands, cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing, and to stay home if they had symptoms. Among the more bizarre recommendations in 1918 was a Syracuse law against spitting on sidewalks and advice against wearing tight clothing, Vroman says. In terms of pandemic preparedness and lines of responsibility at the state and federal levels, Vroman found that not much has changed since 1918.
“In 1918, the federal and state governments didn’t have defined, common goals,” she says. “Even today, the federal government can recommend actions, but it is the state governments that have the responsibility for implementing the recommendations. The politics are all the same.”