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Summer Snapshot: Ryan Dodson ’15 on Researching Ways to Identify Deadly Bacteria in Hospital Patients

Ryan Dodson '15

About Summer Research

To learn more about the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and to read more entries in our "Summer Snapshot" series, visit our SURP website.

This is one in a series looking in on the work and projects Pomona students are carrying out this summer.

Project summary:
What I’m doing right now is part of a larger project I will be doing for my thesis. The overall project is a collaboration between Pomona College, Keck Graduate Institute and a couple of other organizations. A lot of people who are on ventilators end up getting something called ventilator-associated pneumonia. It’s a really big problem; it’s one of the leading causes of death for people on ventilators. You want to be able to diagnose it quickly, and there aren’t a lot of cost-effective ways to do that. We’re trying to develop a cheap, quick way of figuring out if someone is at risk of getting ventilator-associated pneumonia.

My part in this project is growing bacteria that are thought to be causes of this, and trying to figure out what compounds they produce—in particular, compounds that are easy to look at—to try to get a “fingerprint” for these bacteria. If you can see these bacteria are clearly in the patient, then you can better guess that they’re going to be infected. It’s important because it will help identify a disease in patients before they are too far along to undergo treatment quickly. Hopefully it will save lives.

What is your mentor like?
I work for Professor Charles Taylor. He’s a Professor of Chemistry here. He teaches analytical chemistry, general chemistry, and environmental chemistry. He’s a really great person to work with. He’s a lot more hands-off than other professors might be, which is really nice because it lets you take a lot of ownership in the project and gives you a chance to try to address the problems that arise on your own, which lets you grow more as a researcher.

What is one thing about your research so far that you find particularly interesting?
It’s been really surprising to see what kind of precision we’re able to achieve in an undergraduate lab. It’s really cool that there are techniques that let us see things in the parts-per-billion scale, in really, really small concentrations of these analytes we’re looking at.

What is the biggest problem you’re running into right now?
We’re growing bacteria in a specific way that is trying to mimic how they would grow on the ventilator tube of someone in a hospital, which makes the set-up kind of large and unwieldy. You have lots of filters on various parts of your set-up to make sure that nothing bad gets in or gets out, and right now those filters are giving off other compounds that make it harder to see what we’re looking for. It can give us a lot of false positives as well. So we’re trying to optimize our methods right now.