Churchill Undergraduate, Thea Fennell (U17), has had a first-author scientific paper published in the journal Microbial Genomics.

Vibrio cholerae is a bacterial pathogen that is notorious for causing cholera. This is a diarrhoeal disease that affects millions of people worldwide, and kills hundreds of thousands annually. We have known about cholera since the 1800s, and we now know, partly from genomic studies, that pandemic cholera spreads globally and periodically in ‘waves’. Although pandemics are caused by specific clones or ‘lineages’ of the V. cholerae species, there is a great deal of diversity within the species beyond just those bacteria that cause pandemic cholera. Many of these diverse ‘non-pandemic’ V. cholerae are harmless, some can cause extraintestinal infections (such as wound infections), and some cause disease that resembles a cholera infection (but do not go on to cause global pandemic spread).

Thea’s project involved looking at the genomes of these different groups of V. cholerae, including the epidemic ones that can cause mass infection and those that, in Thea’s words “hang out in the water living on crabs” and don’t often cause disease. Her research showed that there is a particular enzyme found in strains that don’t cause epidemics that is not found in strains that do. You can listen to Thea explain her research in our interview with her on the College YouTube page.

Thea’s involvement in the project came about through some Fellows at Churchill who put her in touch with the Thomson Group at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which uses genomic approaches to explore questions of basic science relating to the evolution and spread of bacterial pathogens in both humans and animals. Funded by the Amgen Foundation to work at the Sanger Institute for a summer, Thea then spent a year continuing to work on the project alongside her studies.

Her day-to-day supervisor and Churchill Fellow, Dr Matthew Dorman said, “Summer research gives undergraduates an unparalleled opportunity to experience the scientific process from beginning to end. Despite this, getting undergraduate research published post-peer-review is a very rare accomplishment. Not only has Thea’s project provided relevant insight into the biology of V. cholerae, a pathogen of global health significance, the quality assurance afforded by peer review is a testament to the quality of Churchill’s undergraduate students. I hope that Thea’s experience helps to convince many more undergrads to consider taking on vacation research, not only to learn new and relevant skills, but also to make real contributions to pushing the boundaries of scientific understanding.”