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Emily Ernest

What advice do you have for undergraduates who are just starting out in research?

Ask questions, jump at opportunities with which you’re presented, and always go above and beyond. Don’t idly sit on the sidelines, but be proactive – read literature surrounding your research project or field, take notes, form ideas and share them with your mentor. The amount you can learn from conducting research extends beyond simple laboratory procedures.

When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was 10, outside of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, Discovery Health was one of my favorite channels (no kidding). My parents and I would watch together, and I was fascinated – I really wanted to be a doctor. It sounds a bit cliché, but it’s the truth!

What are your current plans/career goals beyond the undergraduate?

After graduating from WVU, I plan to attend medical school, and as of right now, I would like to specialize in orthopaedic surgery or pediatrics.

When did you get involved in undergraduate research?

I got involved in undergraduate research in the fall of my sophomore year.

How long have you been involved in undergraduate research?

I’ve been involved in undergraduate research for a little over a year now.

Why did you choose get involved in undergraduate research?

To be honest, getting involved with research wasn’t something I even considered until I got to WVU. The University prides itself on its advanced research, and once on campus, it’s hard to not be influenced by this directive. After gaining a deeper understanding of academic topics in my courses, my curiosity was piqued, and I thought research in the medical field would be something I’d enjoy – so I pursued it.

How did you find/connect with your first faculty research adviser?

I found my first research adviser through volunteering in the Orthopaedic Clinic with WVU Healthcare. The Program Coordinator of the department, Sherri Leyden, who I had the great fortune of meeting, invited me to help her with clinical research after I showed interest in research. I loved it, and after a few months, she encouraged me to further pursue research in Orthopaedics. Subsequently, Sherri introduced me to Dr. Matthew Dietz, who took on the role of not only a research adviser, but also a mentor. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for him ever since.

What is your current research?

Currently, we’re developing a standard model of biofilm growth on femoral arthroplasty components (knee prosthetics) in order to replicate prosthetic joint infection caused by biofilm. Biofilm is an adherent conglomerate of microorganisms embedded in a slimy glycocalyx structure, and its inherent characteristics cause most challenges in treating prosthetic joint infection (PJI). The method currently used to replicate PJI involves using small discs of prosthetic biomaterial, which lead to somewhat unrealistic results due to their lack of surgical quality and proper size. Therefore, using Staphylococcus aureus, common in PJI, we’ve engineered a system that yields a consistent amount S. aureus biofilm growth on actual femoral knee prosthetics. The biofilm is quantified by crystal violet staining techniques and scrape and plating methods, and direct visualization of our bacteria is seen using scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Once the model is fully established, exploration of various treatment options and pathogen detection methods becomes reproducible and efficient. Development of these techniques can have a direct impact on patient care.

What skills have you learned by doing research that you would not have learned otherwise (i.e., from lecture alone)?

Though a lot of material from my lectures, especially from biology courses and labs, has been useful, class can’t teach experience. From research, I have a deeper understanding of research processes and developing protocols. I’m more cognizant of the amount of hard work and dedication it takes to have a successful project, and my time management skills have improved. On another level, heavy exposure to the field and interactions with professionals in the field I aspire to enter augmented and refined my interpersonal skills and professionalism. All of these are skills that won’t just help me the rest of my undergraduate career, but for the rest of my life.