Eliza Peterson, PhD

“I have always been drawn to the idea of really sinking my teeth into something specific and becoming an expert in a field.”

What got you started in science?

My parents always encouraged math and science. Then, my next door neighbor, who had a PhD in chemistry, started working for a pharmaceutical company. That was the first time I realized you could do science as a career, not just a doctor, but a scientist.
When I went to college at the University of Michigan, I studied biology and participated in research. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I took a year off to travel and do research before going to MIT for a master’s in environmental engineering. I realized I wanted to get back into microbiology, specifically microbes causing disease.
I went into industry for a little bit. I began working at Amgen in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I worked in drug discovery, primarily antimicrobial, for three years. Then I went to the University of North Carolina for my PhD. There I did research with microbials and antibiotic resistance. I knew I wanted to learn more about computational work and how that might be applied to drug discovery. That brought me to the Institute for Systems Biology.
What are your projects at ISB?
All of my projects relate to studying Mycobacterium tuberculosis and the related organism Mycobacterium smegmatis. M. smegmatis is a model organism for M. tuberculosis that can be studied in BSL2 lab space. They are very different in that M. tuberculosis can cause disease whereas M. smegmatis won’t. They also have very different growth characteristics, one is very slow growing while the other is very fast.
We are trying to understand the regulatory systems in both. Specifically we are trying to understand why M. tuberculosis is able to evade drug treatment so well. It takes about six to nine months to treat M. tuberculosis usually using four drugs at a time. That is best case scenario. If you are resistant to the drugs it can take a lot longer. In most cases, the tuberculosis does not clear all the way and becomes latent. It can stay for the rest of your life, and if you ever become immunocompromised it can become active again.
Why did you choose to study infectious diseases?
They just fascinate me. I think it is so interesting how these little microbes can cause such bad diseases. They affect everyone across the globe and socioeconomic classes. Microbes are so tiny, yet they encode such amazing capabilities.
When you were in high school did you envision your life how it is today?
I did not know what research I would be doing, but I have always been drawn to the idea of really sinking my teeth into something specific and becoming an expert in a field.
What is your favorite aspect of career in science?
My favorite part is that it is different everyday. I am never doing the same thing. One day I might be in the lab, or I might be analyzing data, or I might be writing a paper or preparing a presentation. It never gets redundant. To me that is huge, I would struggle facing the same thing every day.
What are you short term vs long term goals?
We are trying to develop a host pathogen regulatory model where we can look at regulation and how that is happening between both the host and the pathogen. It is very hard to get transcriptomes from both because the pathogen has RNA one two hundredth the size of the host if you have a cell of each. We have come up with a method to enrich for the bacterial RNA so that we can do sequencing of both. Then we would be able to make a host pathogen model. The methods are getting there, but actually modeling that has never been done. We at least know how to get the data to do it.
Do you have any advice for students pursuing a career in science?
I think getting any computational skills you can would be good. I feel that is the direction that science is going. Whether you are modeling with algorithms or even using big data, those computational skills will help you work with that. Statistics or biostatistics will help you a lot if you are interested in biology or the sciences. Also, don’t be afraid to try different things and bring in more skills and new ways of thinking.

ISB High School Interns 2017