NCF and SCF Alum Wins Microbiology Award

Stephanie Morgan’s scientific research — the discovery and analysis of a previously unknown bacterium, which could lead to new antibiotics – won the award for the top student paper at a leading microbiology conference.
Morgan, a Bradenton resident and 2016 graduate of New College of Florida, received the Best in Session Student Poster award at the Small World Initiative Annual Symposium, part of the American Society for Microbiology’s annual meeting.
Morgan’s research began in 2014 while a student in the biotechnology program at State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota. SCF is one of 25 participants in the Initiative, a project based at Yale University that combines technology, science and innovation in order to improve global education and health care.
“Stephanie is very talented. She’s one of the hardest working students I’ve come across,” SCF biotechnology professor Eric Warrick said. “Her work ethic makes her highly competent in the lab. She also has a high amount of curiosity and that’s what drives her to constantly think about what to do next, what the next experiment could be.”
Morgan later transferred to New College, concentrating in biology and chemistry, and professors from SCF, New College and Florida Southern College worked with her.
Morgan’s work began with an SCF biotechnology class project. She took water samples among the mangroves along Leffis Key, at the southern end of Anna Maria Island. Lab testing revealed the bacterium, in the genus Vibrio, which the class nicknamed “Pink” for its bright pigmentation.
They extracted its DNA and sent it off to a laboratory to obtain its sequencing, which allowed the students to compare it to the National Institute of Health’s genetic sequence database. There were no good matches, indicating Morgan may have discovered a new organism.
At New College, she focused her research on what makes “Pink” pink – and may make it an important discovery for medicine.
She isolated the pigment molecules and found the DNA sequence that the bacterium uses to create them. The pigment molecules, called prodigiosins, have been studied for their anti-bacterial, anti-malarial and anti-cancer properties, Morgan said.
Her experiments found that “Pink” produces a broad-spectrum antibiotic that can limit the growth of several bacteria known to cause infections in people giving it the potential to be used in the development of new medications.
“We are still in the early stages of understanding what those antimicrobial compounds are and whether they are novel compounds,” Warrick said. “If they are novel, they could have a therapeutic benefit.”
Regardless of the medical implications, Morgan’s work represented top-notch scientific research.
“Stephanie’s project is exceptional in many ways,” said biochemistry professor Katherine Walstrom, her advisor at New College. “Stephanie did both a bioinformatics analysis of the genome of the bacterial strain she isolated as well as a phenotypic, or growth characteristics, analysis and a chemical analysis of the pink pigment produced by the bacteria.”
“I think that her project is comparable to at least a master’s degree-level thesis,” Walstrom said.
Morgan submitted her research for the American Society of Microbiology’s annual meeting, where it was one of some 3,500 presented. The poster, titled “Discovery of a Novel Prodigiosin Producing Vibrio from the Gulf of Mexico,” was one of 20 considered for the SWI award.
University of Pittsburgh laboratory coordinator Jean Schmidt, an organizer of the poster contest, said Morgan’s research and presentation showed “outstanding merit.” Students were judged on their posters and oral presentations of their work, including the explanation of the significance of their findings and their command of their material when responding to judges’ questions.
“It was exciting to be acknowledged for all the hard work I did in regards to my thesis project,” Morgan said. “Going to the conference and getting to have conversations with people about my research was a very rewarding experience. I especially enjoyed talking to some of the other undergrad students about their projects and helping them think of where to go next. It really put into context how much work I put into this and how far I have come.”
In all, eight professors and staff at three colleges, and Jon Reed, a neuroscience investigator at the Roskamp Institute, worked with Morgan on the project. Her advisors at SCF were Warrick and program manager Matthew Thomas. Her co-authors on the presentation were Warrick, Walstrom and Florida Southern College biology professor Brittany Gasper.
Morgan is working at nanotechnology company US Nano in Sarasota. She plans to attend graduate school for advanced degrees in biology.

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