I am Esha Srinivasan and I am originally from a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina. I am a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania where I am majoring in biochemistry and minoring in music. My after college plans include veterinary school! My love for animals and my experience with environmental science in high school made me really excited for the opportunity of being a STEER scholar. Lucky enough to spend the summer in Philadelphia, I worked in a translational human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) research lab with Dr. Katharine Bar. I found the summer to be extremely rewarding, considering how apt it is to study infectious pathogens in the midst of a global health crisis.
What is your summer research project?
This summer, I aided in the effort of understanding how HIV evolves in response to treatments and the body’s immune system. I sequenced SIVmac239, a close relative to HIV, in the plasma samples of 13 animals inoculated with the virus. The 13 animals were given antiretroviral therapy (ART) to suppress their viral load. Some animals were given monoclonal antibodies to prolong the suppression of the virus without having to continue ART. After sequencing, I was able to look at the ambiguities between the original reference sequence and the viruses found within the sample.
What are the implications of your research?
HIV is a health crisis ubiquitous throughout the world. Several millions of individuals are currently living with HIV globally. Though current medicines are certainly effective at suppressing the virus and prolonging the lives of patients, access to treatments unfortunately differ throughout the world. Not only is healthcare access unequal, but also clades of HIV endemic to Europe and the United States are more well studied than other clades of the virus. Studying all types of HIV assures that any treatments found benefit all that are infected with HIV and not just those infected with a clade native to an affluent country.
Since this research reveals the places in which HIV has changed its sequence, these loci on the HIV genome can help researchers understand how HIV is able to evade the body’s immune response. While ART is able to remove the virus lingering throughout the body, it is not able to remove the reservoir of virus that remains in the cells of the host. Understanding why HIV makes these changes brings us one step closer to finding a cure or preventative for the virus.
What new skills have you gained through your research?
Through this research, I was able to develop a deep appreciation for both the social science and actual science of HIV. Knowing about the debilitating effects this virus has on patients’ lives really motivates its research. I was also in awe of how clever HIV is at avoiding capture. I find it fascinating that a virus’ lack of skill in maintaining its own integrity actually supports its ability to persist in a host.
Gene sequencing was something that I had never done before this summer. At first it was daunting how the entire process seemed to consist of machines and tiny volumes of clear liquids, but it was motivating being able to make parallels between HIV’s replication and the lab methods. Working with SIV instead of HIV taught me how relevant non-human primate models are to research, and about how we are always working towards improving the accuracy of these models. I also enjoyed learning about SIV’s role in the environment and how HIV was once zoonotic. I learned how to turn RNA into DNA and it was fascinating to me that we were able to replicate a process that HIV already knows how to do. I learned how to use the polymerase chain reaction to make copies of DNA. I also learned how to perform gel electrophoresis and how it can be used to confirm the size of sequence fragments. Using software to read and analyze sequences was new to me as well. I always thought it was so cool that we are able to detect these sequences down to single nucleotides. I am excited to be able to use these skills in my science courses in undergrad and beyond.