Desmond Edwards was a small child when he heard about typhoid fever. Fortunately, he didn’t have the disease. He was watching a cartoon public health announcement. The cartoon, produced by the Pan American Health Organization, was designed to educate people in his home country of Jamaica about the importance of vaccination against diseases like typhoid. The typhoid character in the cartoon was so unpleasant that he had nightmares.
Edwards had her fair share of hospital visits throughout her childhood. But, his own struggles with infection and disease, and those cartoon nightmares about typhoid, became his inspiration to pursue a career in the study of human disease. At age 6, Edwards was conducting impromptu baking soda experiments in repurposed glitter containers in his kitchen. Today, he’s a senior at MIT, majoring in biology and bioengineering, thanks to a dedicated team of mentors and an insatiable curiosity about how the human body works – or, more specifically, how diseases affect it. prevent it from functioning.
Find a path in research
Edwards knew he wanted to do some research, but he assumed it was something you did after you have graduated. Imagine his surprise, then, arriving at MIT in 2018 and meeting classmates who not only had done research, but already had publications. Realizing he could give his career a boost, he sought out research opportunities and enrolled in Biology 7.102 (Introduction to Molecular Biology Techniques) for his freshman year independent pursuits. The class was specifically for freshmen like him with no lab experience.
“It was a great first look at how research is done,” Edwards says of the class. The students took water samples from the Charles River and had to identify the strains of bacteria found in these samples using various biological techniques. They examined the bacteria under a microscope. They looked at how the samples metabolized different carbon sources and determined if they could be stained by different dyes. They even got to try basic genetic sequencing. “We knew where we were starting. And we knew the end goal,” says Edwards. The in-between depended on them.
Class 7.102 is taught by Mandana Sassanfar, a lecturer in biology and the department’s director of diversity and science outreach. For Sassanfar, the class is also an opportunity to find laboratory internships for students. In Edwards’ case, she literally drove him to assistant professor Becky Lamason’s lab, walking with him one evening to meet a postdoc, Jon McGinn, to talk about the lab and the opportunities there. After Edwards expressed interest in Lamason, she responded within 30 minutes. McGinn even followed up to answer any lingering questions.
“I think that’s really what pushed him over the edge,” he says of his decision to take a job at the Lamason lab. “I saw that they were not only interested in having me as someone to help them do research, but also interested in my personal development.”
At the borders of cells and disciplines
The Lamason lab studies the life cycle of two different pathogens, trying to understand how bacteria move between cells. Edwards focused on Rickettsia parkeri, a tick-borne pathogen responsible for spotted fever. This kind of Rickettsia is what biologists call an obligate intracellular pathogen, which means it resides in cells and can only survive while in a host. “I like to call it a glorified virus,” jokes Edwards.
Edwards enthuses as he describes the various ways in which R.parkeri can outsmart its infected host. It evolved to evade the cell’s phagosome, the small liquid sac that forms from the cell membrane and engulfs organisms like bacteria that pose a threat. Once past the phagosome and into the cell, it takes control of the cellular machinery, just like a virus. At this point in the life cycle, a bacterium will typically replicate so many times that the infected cell will burst and the pathogen will spread widely. R.parkeri, however, can also spread to uninfected cells directly through the membrane where two cells touch. By not causing a cell to burst, the bacterium can spread without alerting the host to its presence.
“From a disease perspective, it’s extremely interesting,” Edwards says. “If you don’t leave the cell or you’re not detected, you don’t see antibodies. You don’t see the immune cells. It’s very difficult to get that standard immune response.
While in the lab, Edwards worked on various projects related to Rickettsia, including developing genetic tools to study the pathogen and examining potential genes that might be important in its life cycle. His projects are at the intersection of biology and bioengineering.
“For me, I kind of live between those spaces,” Edwards says. “I am extremely interested in understanding the mechanisms that underlie all of biology. But I don’t just want to understand these systems. I also want to design and apply them in a way that benefits society. »
science for society
Last year, Edwards won the Department of Biology’s Whitehead Prize, rewarding students with “outstanding promise for a career in biological research.” But his extracurricular activities were driven more by his desire to apply science for tangible social benefits.
“How do you take the science you’ve done in the lab, in different research settings, and translate it in a way that the public actually benefits from it?” he asks.
A science education is especially important to Edwards, given the educational opportunities he was given to help him get to MIT. As a high school student, Edwards participated in a Caribbean Science Foundation initiative called the Student Program for Innovation in Science and Engineering. SPISE, as it is called, is designed to encourage and support Caribbean students interested in careers in STEM fields. The curriculum is modeled after MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) curriculum. Cardinal Warde, professor of electrical engineering, is himself from the Caribbean and is faculty director for both MITES and SPISE.
“This experience not only opened my eyes a bit more to what was available, what was within the realm of possibility, but also provided support to get to MIT,” Edwards said of SPISE. . For example, the program helped him apply to college and worked with him to secure an internship at a biotech company when he first moved to the United States.
“If education falters, then you don’t replenish the field of science,” Edwards argues. “You don’t excite the younger generations and the public won’t care.”
Edwards also played a leadership role in the MIT Biotechnology Group, a campus-wide student group intended to connect the MIT community with thought leaders in industry, business, and science. from academia. For Edwards, the biotech and pharmaceutical industries play a clear role in treating disease, and he knew he wanted to join the group even before arriving at MIT. In 2019, he became co-director of the Biotech Group’s Industry Initiative, a program focused on preparing members for careers in industry. In 2020, he became undergraduate chair and this year he is co-chair of the entire organization. Edwards speaks proudly of what the Biotech Group has accomplished during his tenure on the board, noting that they not only have the largest cohort ever this year, but this is also the first time the group is mostly undergraduate.
Somehow, between his research and outreach work, Edwards finds time to minor in French, play for the Quidditch team, and serve as co-chair of the course’s undergraduate council. 20, among other activities. It’s a balancing act that Edwards mastered during his time at MIT because of his genuine enthusiasm and interest in everything he does.
“I don’t like not understanding things,” he jokes. “That applies to science, but it also extends to people.”