While most college juniors are attending parties and sporting events in their free time, others are aiming to change the world. Such is the case with Utah State University junior Uyen Lam who is currently studying a method to kill cancer cells both in humans and agricultural animals.

With faculty mentor, Dr. Joseph Li, Lam and four other undergraduate students are studying the Bluetongue virus, which is transmitted by a biting midge that infects sheep, cattle and other agricultural animals. Bluetongue virus does not infect humans, but research conducted by Lam and Li has demonstrated Bluetongue virus’s ability to selectively infect and kill human cancer cells without causing serious side effects.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death for humans in the United States. One in four men and one in five women are at risk of dying from some form of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society website.

“I hope to see Bluetongue Virus potentially being used in cancer therapy. If Bluetongue virus is successful in cancer treatment, many human lives could be saved,” says Lam.

Lam is specifically researching how Bluetongue virus mRNA is converted into  proteins within cells. In addition to her cancer research, Lam is also trying to find how the virus replicates in the cell. This information could be used to screen for antiviral drugs against viral infection in animals.

“Bluetongue virus was recently recognized as a problem in destroying the agricultural industry,” says Lam. “We need to find drugs to prevent the death and fetal malformations that are caused by Bluetongue virus in cattle.”

Lam says undergraduate research is a great opportunity for her to use the knowledge she gains from the classroom and make it worthwhile. She says she is happy to be at Utah State University because it is a strong research university and has given her great opportunities to conduct research. Her research has taught her to accept that things do not work out constantly, and that she has to be able to correct her mistakes. She learned to keep going and find another answer rather than give up.

“As a little girl, my favorite question to ask was, ‘why,’” says Lam. “I loved peering into the microscope and entering the world of microbes, wondering how something so small could cause dramatic manifestation of disease in a perfectly healthy body. My research gives me the opportunity to answer these childhood questions firsthand.”

Research ups & downs

Uyen Lam has realized the hard way that research does not always work smoothly. Lam had spent a week growing, infecting, and harvesting different cell samples. She was performing the final touches of her experiment as she picked up her sample, and disaster struck! Her 96-well experiment splattered all over the floor. The lids had popped off and, “I was left with clean up duty,” says Lam. “Never in my life had I felt more frustrated. I wanted to rip my hair out.”