When Caitlin Smith, ’12, was a freshman in high school, a book she picked up by chance had a profound impact on her life. “The Demon in the Freezer” by Richard Preston examines the dangers of biological weapons and explores the possibility of the smallpox virus being used as a weapon.

Since reading the book, Smith says, “I have known that I want to devote my life to studying potential bioweapons agents and preparing my country to defend against bioweapons attack.”

Smith chose to attend the University of Richmond primarily because she knew she would have the opportunity to perform research as an undergraduate.

“That has become a common theme among science students,” says Dr. Laura Runyen-Janecky, in whose biology lab Smith worked this summer. “It is unusual for undergraduates to be able to participate in cutting-edge and publishable research like they can here.”

At Richmond, Smith is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. This summer, while supported by a National Science Foundation grant, Smith studied Sodalis glossinidius, a bacterium that lives in the gut of the tsetse fly.

"It's a very new organism," Runyen-Janecky explains. "Not many people are working with it." Opportunities for discovery — and for publishing those discoveries — abound.

Smith's summer experience gave her insight into the challenges of a career in biological research. She plans to continue her work in Runyen-Janekcy's lab during the academic year. Here’s how she spent her summer:

Describe your research project and desired outcomes:

Tsetse flies carry the parasitic protists that cause African sleeping sickness in humans. The bacteria I study, Sodalis glossinidius, lives in the gut of the tsetse fly in close proximity to the disease causing trypanosome. Sodalis was only recently discovered, so little is known about its role in the life of the tsetse fly and its parasite, but experiments show that the presence of Sodalis increases the likelihood that the fly will transmit the trypanosome and cause infection. Because of the importance of Sodalis to both the fly and the parasitic trypanosome, creating genetic mutations in Sodalis has great potential to affect the ability of tsetse flies to cause disease.

What made you decide to pursue undergraduate research this summer? How did you find an advisor?

Last summer I applied for an undergraduate research project in biology and math. ... After the commitment to that project ended, I decided to join [Dr. Laura Runyen-Janecky’s] lab and work on pure biology projects.

I loved my summer research last year, and knew this summer would be just as great. Also, I want to pursue a lifelong career in biological research, so I am getting the experience that I need to take me there.

How do you see this project contributing to your collegiate success during the rest of your time at Richmond?

My research is critical to my collegiate success here at Richmond. Research is what I believe I want to do for the rest of my life, and it is very unique to UR that I have been able to try full-time research so early on in my career.

After graduation I hope to go to graduate school for my doctorate. And then, after my post-doc positions, I hope to work at USAMRIID, the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases.

What has a liberal arts education at the University of Richmond meant to you?

I appreciate the wide variety of subjects that a liberal arts education has exposed me to. I admit … that I'm not usually excited about my fields-of-study requirement courses, but after the fact, I'm glad that I have taken them and feel more well-rounded and generally knowledgeable than I would have been otherwise.