Trainee Spotlight: Catherine Smith

Catherine Smith is a Ph.D. trainee in Julie Moore’s laboratory. She is originally from Rochester, New York and received her B.S. from Haverford College in Pennsylvania before coming to the University of Georgia. Catherine is a second-year recipient of the Center’s NIH T32 Training Grant for Interdisciplinary Parasitology, Vector Biology, and Emerging Diseases.

Catherine’s research focus

Catherine is studying the role of syncytiotrophoblastic autophagy in the pathogenesis of placental malaria.

Placental malaria is a severe manifestation of Plasmodium falciparum infection that impacts pregnant women and causes poor birth outcomes, including pregnancy loss and low birth weight.

The placenta acts as the connection between a mother and her fetus. Within the placenta, a fetal tissue, the syncytiotrophoblast, acts as the interface between the maternal and fetal blood supplies. During maternal malaria infection, P. falciparum-infected red blood cells adhere to the syncytiotrophoblast.

“The response of the syncytiotrophoblast to maternal malaria infection is not completely understood,” said Catherine. “I hypothesize that the trophoblast performs autophagy, a self-eating mechanism that allows cells to recycle damaged proteins and organelles, to offset the stress caused by maternal malaria infection.”

While working to characterize the role of syncytiotrophoblastic autophagy in placental malaria pathogenesis, she observed that mice bred and reared in different facilities exhibited differences in susceptibility to malaria infection regardless of pregnancy status. This difference in susceptibility can be attributed to differences in the composition of the gut microbiota. The immunological mechanisms driving this difference in susceptibility have yet to be defined. The Moore Lab plans to explore the immunological mechanisms underlying this gut microbiota-dependent difference in susceptibility to malaria infection in pregnant and virgin mice.

Catherine chose to study placental malaria because she was interested in exploring host-pathogen interactions and the basic cellular biology of the placenta. In addition, she chose to join Dr. Moore’s laboratory because she was interested in contributing to a field of research with the potential to improve the lives of women and infants around the world.

Capstone Experience

Each T32 fellow is provided with the opportunity to complete a capstone experience. Catherine plans to travel to a collaborator’s laboratory in the United States where she will complete specialized experiments that cannot be performed at The University of Georgia.

T32 Fellowship helps trainee achieve goals

“The T32 fellowship has enhanced my training by allowing me to focus on my research,” said Catherine. “As part of my capstone experience, I plan to spend some time in a collaborator’s lab, which will allow me to form relationships with scientists at other institutions, learn new techniques, and perform experiments that will strengthen my research project.”

After completing her training, Catherine plans to pursue a career in parasitology research in either an academic or an industrial setting.