First Alicia Showalter Reynolds Award goes to student who knew Alicia

April 10, 1997
Media Contact: Michael Purdy
Phone: (410) 955-8725

Johns Hopkins will give the first award named for Alicia Showalter Reynolds to Laura Rusche, Ph.D., a Hopkins graduate who also happened to be a friend of Reynolds.

The award, which commemorates the Hopkins doctoral student who was murdered last year, will be presented April 10 to Rusche as a part of Young Investigators' Day, a ceremony honoring Hopkins' brightest young researchers.

"The creation of this award will help us in our healing process by allowing us to remember Alicia as an outstanding scientist and student," says Rusche. "It reminds us of everything that made Alicia remarkable: her dedication, intelligence, optimism, tenacity, and her desire to help others through science."

Hopkins officials made special arrangements to fly Rusche, who is currently in Botswana, back to Baltimore to accept the award, which includes a $1000 prize.

"After selecting Laura for this solely on the basis of her outstanding work, we were quite pleased to discover that she was someone who knew Alicia," says Peter Agre, M.D., a Hopkins professor and chairman of Young Investigators' Day. "We knew right away that making it possible for her to come back for the awards ceremony would be a priority."

Rusche won for her studies of trypanosomes, single-celled parasites that cause sleeping sickness in sub-Saharan Africa. To help scientists find new opportunities to stop trypanosomes with drugs or other treatments, Rusche has probed a peculiarity in the way they produce energy.

"Like all cells, a trypanosome needs certain proteins to produce energy," says Rusche. "In the trypanosome's case, though, the genetic instructions for making these proteins are defective--if the cell follows them, the protein they build won't work."

Cells use a molecule called ribonucleic acid or RNA to read genetic instructions. The RNA takes information from the DNA and encodes it into itself; the cell then uses the RNA as a template for building the protein. The trypanosome intervenes after the creation of the RNA, changing it to correct the encoded information.

"When I began my studies, scientists thought that RNA performed this Žediting' function on itself," says Rusche. "What I and others in my lab found was that a group of seven major proteins does the editing. We're now in a position to characterize this process in great detail, and that could help us find places where we can block it, effectively pulling the trypanosome's plug."

At the time of her disappearance, Reynolds was also working to stop a parasite, a tropical worm known as a schistosome. She and others in the lab of Mette Strand, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences, had isolated a portion of a schistosome protein for use as a vaccine.

Early trials of the vaccine in mice were encouraging, and data from a second mice trial are expected later this year.

"During our first years at Hopkins, Alicia and I discussed our shared interests and our hopes that the research we were doing could ultimately benefit others less fortunate than ourselves," says Rusche. "Her excitement was infectious and encouraged me to pursue my interests further. I'm grateful that I was able to get to know such a person, and I hope my work does justice to her memory."

Funding for the award was provided by the Dean's Office at the Hopkins School of Medicine.

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