Finding the Spark
BC senior Camille Petri co-authors major research that could hold key to combating malaria
ByAs a sophomore, Camille Petri,'09, was looking for that spark to guide her down a career path with her degree in biology. She wound up in a lab at the University of Washington via one of the most competitive summer research programs in the country.
Two years later, Petri's contributions in the biotechnology lab of UW Professor Paul Yager landed her as a co-author of an internationally acclaimed research project that may give public health workers an edge against malaria, which kills one million people annually.
Yager's lab recently unveiled a hand-held blood test kit – the DxBox – which resembles a beefed-up credit card yet can detect malaria and survive the rigors of rural Africa and Asia, where the disease is prevalent.
"Nobody had been able to try this and we did it and it worked," Petri says of her work, guided by UW colleague Dean Stevens, a bioengineering doctoral student and lead author of the report. "It is very humbling. I'm excited to have participated in the work and grateful to have been included among the authors of the paper."
Unveiled in a report in the December issue of the journal Lab on a Chip, the DxBox is seen as a crucial development in a long-term project funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop affordable, easy-to-use diagnostic tools for the developing world.
That Petri would find herself engaged in biology research probably shouldn't come as a surprise. She is the daughter of biologists William H. Petri, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Adj. Asst. Prof. Arlene Wyman.
"This was an intensive project to which Camille devoted many long hours not only in the lab but in the application process," said William Petri. "For a major lab to let an undergraduate be named a full author is a special acknowledgement of her substantive contributions. That is really nice for Camille and her mom and I are very proud of her."
Camille Petri says she was looking for a summer program that would give her a better idea which route to pursue with her degree – research or clinical work. She was awarded one of the 250 Amgen Scholars summer fellowships, among the most sought after by the top undergraduate biology students in the country. A high school service trip to Ghana, where she saw malaria's devastating effects, led her to Yager's lab.
"What drew me to the project was the fact that it was applying science to help other people, especially those without the resources to help themselves," she says.
During her 10-week program, Petri focused on the biological answers the team was looking for so as to help engineers create the biochemical test kit. First, Petri and her colleagues proved that some of the chemicals in the cards could be stabilized with sugars and stored over time at various temperatures. Then they discovered the stored antibodies did not deteriorate and the sugars did not interfere with the detection of malaria.
Finally, Petri and Stevens developed prototype cards – made up of layers of plastic containing channels, tubes and reservoirs – that could run the test and offer detectable results.
"I was proud of the work that Dean and I did because it served as a proof of concept, namely that malaria could be detected in a microfluidic format," Petri says.
The crash course in bioengineering, fluid dynamics, epidemiology and public health served to steer Petri to medical school, which she plans to attend after working for a year following graduation.
"I realized that interpersonal relationships will need to be part of the work I do," Petri says. "The research experience was challenging, rigorous and incredibly exciting, but I found myself interested in a more people-oriented setting. I want to be the clinician bringing the DxBox to the patient."
Ed Hayward can be reached at email@example.com.