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Andy Murtha wins 1st Place at the Restek Student Research Symposium

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7/25/2018 – Andrew Murtha took first place in Restek’s first annual Student Research Symposium for his presentation on “Communication Between Vibrio fischeri Populations within the Squid Light Organ.” Restek held its first annual Student Research Symposium at its global headquarters in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania as part of their commitment to developing the next generation of scientists. During the event, Restek chemists and leadership presented on gas chromatography in space, olfactory detection, and bile acid analysis by liquid chromatography. The student participants, in addition to learning more about STEM careers, prepared and presented posters on a variety of topics that were judged by a panel of Restek technical experts. Restek, a leading developer and manufacturer of chromatography columns and accessories, were impressed by the high quality of the students work. Restek provides analysts around the world with the innovative tools they need to monitor the quality of air, water, soil, foods, pharmaceuticals, chemical, and petroleum products.

MurthaMurtha, a Senior majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, grew up not too far from University Park in Johnstown Pennsylvania. His interest in science, especially in molecular and microbiology, is a result of many family vacations to Yellowstone National Park. While observing Yellowstone’s hot springs and thermal features, Murtha became fascinated in the thriving bacteria and the mechanisms that allowed microorganisms to live in that environment.

After graduating from Richland Senior High School, Murtha arrived at University Park to begin the next chapter of his life. Choosing to come to Penn State because of the research opportunities, facilities and the funding available within the sciences, he did not know what particular lab he would work in. What he did know was that there was a multitude of research labs available and that he would have the opportunity to fine-tune his research interests and skills in the lab that best aligned with his career goals.

Murtha joined the Miyashiro Lab at the beginning of his second semester at Penn State and works under the direction of Dr. Timothy Miyashiro.  He first learned about the lab when Dr. Miyashiro presented his research at a seminar for BMB majors and found that the lab aligned closely with his interests. The Miyashiro Lab seeks to understand how bacteria adapt to a host environment by studying the mutualistic symbiosis established between the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) and a bioluminescent bacterium (Vibrio fischeri). From within a dedicated structure called the light organ, populations of V. fischeri produce light that the squid uses to camouflage itself at night. The lab uses microbial genetics, confocal microscopy, and biochemistry to explore bacterial gene regulation within this fascinating symbiosis. During the spring 2017 semester, Murtha accompanied a group to Hawaii on a squid collection trip.

As an undergraduate researcher in the lab, his work revolves around bacterial quorum sensing, a process that describes the synthesis and detection of small signaling molecules by individual bacterial cells. Through quorum sensing, bacteria can regulate genes that control activities such as motility, virulence, or luminescence. This communication allows cells to carry out coordinated cellular functions as a population. His project in particular focuses on how bacteria use quorum sensing to communicate within the host and he is seeking to determine the impact of this communication on the ability of the bacteria to remain associated with the host.

Murtha credits the university as a whole, the BMB Department and his faculty mentor Dr. Miyashiro for providing the incredible support of his progression as a researcher. Funding from Penn State and external sources has allowed Murtha to continue his research during summers at University Park, an opportunity that provides a more enriching and productive experience as opposed to only performing research during the school year. Murtha also received the ASM Undergraduate Research Fellowship and NASA PA Space Grant this past spring and believes that these achievements would not have been possible without the mentoring and guidance of his mentor Dr. Miyashiro as well as other faculty within the BMB department.

Dr. Miyashiro has enjoyed mentoring Murtha over the last two years. “When Andy joined my lab, he had only experienced research in the classroom. He quickly learned some of the basic microbiology assays that my lab uses to investigate cell-cell communication in bacteria (quorum sensing), and he then began to make great strides in his research project,” stated Dr. Miyashiro.  Murtha is in the process of completing his thesis for the Schreyer Honors College which will feature some of the exciting findings he has made during his time in the Miyashiro Lab.

After graduation, he plans to attend graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in the microbial sciences. Murtha believes gaining a further understanding of molecular mechanisms, population behavior, and infection by bacteria, as well as bettering his communication and writing skills, will prepare him for a scientific career in the biotech industry.

Read more about the Restek Student Research Symposium here