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  • Writer's pictureVedant Parikh

Lab Notes on: Dr. Rebecca Lamason

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Alexandra Jacala's notes on Dr. Rebecca Lamason, a biology professor at MIT.

 

Dr. Rebecca Lamason is a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She often studies Rickettsia, a harmful bacterium, and how pathogens like Rickettsia hijack cells.


Hailing from Pennsylvania, Dr. Lamason got her start at her local community college before transferring to Millersville University as she became more interested in science. Later, she became a technician at Penn State and went on to get her PhD from Johns Hopkins University. She started her postdoc work, and began her research on immunology and Rickettsia in 2011. Now, she works with undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc students to learn more about Rickettsia and its behaviors.


In the lab, Dr. Lamason focuses on microscopy and views both live cells, moving bacteria attacking a host cell, and fixed cells. Due to the fact that Rickettsiae must be attached to a host cell to thrive, the bacteria are stored in a freezer, added to a dish to interact with host cells, and cultured for two weeks. Then, Dr. Lamason and her students use a glass bead to separate the bacteria from the host cells. This allows them to study a bacteria that most people would avoid; according to the CDC, RMSF, a disease caused by a Rickettsia infection, is “one of the deadliest tickborne diseases in the Americas”¹. Since Rickettsiae often enter cells through tick bites, Dr. Lamason often works with mammalian epithelial (skin) cells or vasculature (blood vessel lining) cells to simulate a real human infection.


Dr. Lamason enjoys studying Rickettsiae due to their unique behaviors. For example, Rickettsiae often inject themselves into cells and slam themselves into cell membranes to enter neighboring cells. The pathogens often hijack the host cell’s actin, an essential part of the cell, to form long actin tails that help the pathogen take over the host cell’s system. Fun fact: according to Dr. Lamason’s research, Rickettsiae can form up to 300 different bacterial proteins, and all of them are different from those found in nature. No one has identified each specific protein yet, but Dr. Lamason’s team has worked on labeling bacterial proteins of interest. Another interesting project of her team involved looking at how the endoplasmic reticulum, or ER, connects to the bacteria. In school, most children learn that the organelles of the cell are each their own little compartments with different functions such as generating energy for the cell (mitochondria) or storing DNA within the cell (nuclei). Contradicting this myth, the ER is everywhere; It often regulates communication between organelles and transports proteins. Dr. Lamason has found that Rickettsiae can hijack the ER and “talk” to each organelle.


In the future, Dr. Lamason hopes to find out more about the molecules and proteins involved in an infection, and how the body responds to it. Since technology for Rickettsia is currently limited (especially when compared to other bacteria like E. Coli), she looks forward to the invention of technology that could turn genes on and off.


When asked about what motivates her to continue her research, Dr. Lamason replied that for her, the discovery of the unknown - and getting to share that with trainees - keeps her going. As for advice, Dr. Lamason says to focus on the question at hand. Sometimes, one must take a step back and change their approach if needed. Furthermore, it is important to have fun, stay flexible to changes in the experiment, and use critical thinking to apply what one has observed to the real world.


For aspiring researchers, Dr. Lamason says this: Talk to as many people about your experiments as possible. Everyone has something unique to contribute, and asking questions such as “Have you thought about this?” or “Can you tell me more?” can go a long way.

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