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The Level of Greatness
Co-author on a new paper about Lyme disease, Allison Kirkpatrick ’14 is seeing some of the fruits of her internship, while an undergrad at Washington College, with an international leader on the illness.
Three years ago, Allison Kirkpatrick ’14 was the first Washington College student to intern with Dr. John Aucott, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine who founded the Lyme Disease Research Foundation. Now, her work during that internship between junior and senior years has resulted in her co-authorship with Aucott and two others on an article in the March 2015 issue of Clinical Rheumatology.
“This is the first paper I’ve been co-author on, so it’s really exciting,” says Kirkpatrick, who is now working for the International HIV/STD section of the Laboratory of Immunoregulation, part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She earned the position through the National Institutes of Health Post-Baccalaureate Research Training Award. “Dr. Aucott was such a great teacher. It was great to watch him with patients, but he was also great at teaching immunology and why what we were studying is so important.”
Kirkpatrick, a biology major with minors in chemistry and philosophy, studied in WAC’s premed program. (She’ll be taking her MCATs this summer to apply to medical school.) She was a sophomore when a class in immunology with Dr. Kate Verville, who chairs the premedical committee and is an associate professor of biology, set her on the path she is traveling today.
“It was an upper-level class, and I said, ‘I really want to do this, but I don’t know if I can handle it,’ And she said, ‘You know, why don’t you just try it and see?’ And I just loved it, and it clicked with me.”
Verville was also instrumental in encouraging the internship with Aucott at the Lyme Disease Research Foundation, which has become an international leader in studying the debilitating, misunderstood, tick-borne illness. This summer will be the third year that a WAC student will participate in the internship at the foundation.
Kirkpatrick says she job-shadowed with Aucott in his work as a general internist and also with the foundation’s Lyme disease study patients. She helped enroll new patients, and worked on data analysis with Alison W. Rebman, the paper’s lead author.
“I worked a lot on doing the background research, and I was really interested in the immunology of the infection and the host-pathogen interactions that are going on,” she says. “The paper is mainly about how different people have different reactions as far as the serology goes, and the implications of that for diagnosing and managing the disease. Some people never seroconvert, or become positive, on the serological tests used to diagnose Lyme disease, which results in a limitation in diagnosing people with Lyme disease based on serology alone.”
Lyme disease remains controversial and misunderstood, and one of the most important things Kirkpatrick says she learned, as a future physician, is how important it is to really listen to what patients are saying.
“I was going through these interviews with his patients, and a lot of what they were saying is that people thought they were crazy, because they didn’t believe the symptoms,” she says. “And then there’s the science behind it, too, that we’re trying to elucidate, but it’s difficult.”
The internship also has a direct connection to her current work at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which she began last June and will continue for another year. “One of the main tests used to diagnose Lyme disease is the ELISA. I was on the clinical side of the results with the internship with Dr. Aucott, and now at my current position I run ELISAs for HIV purposes almost every day. It’s kind of nice that it came full circle, in a sense, because when I was at the Lyme internship I never thought I would see the ‘benchtop’ side of research, so to speak.”
In February in Seattle, Kirkpatrick presented an abstract at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections on work she is doing to develop methods to estimate HIV incidence in a population; she’s now working on a full paper on that research. HIV research interests her, she says, in part because of the way the disease stigmatizes people: “It’s really compelling to me to help those patients,” she says.
From Galena, Maryland, just up the road from Washington College, Kirkpatrick says that at first she didn’t want to go to WAC because she thought it was too close to home.
“Then I went to the science day, and it was the most amazing thing and it caught me completely off-guard, because I hadn’t realized the level of greatness that is the science and premedical program there,” she says. “I just fell in love with the professors and Toll Science Center, and I knew it was right.”