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Young Investigator Profile: Crystal Hepp

Crystal Hepp

Postdoc, Northern Arizona University

Recommended by Marcie McClure, Montana State University

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Crystal Hepp stumbled onto bioinformatics as an undergrad. She was looking for a university work-study job that was in a lab when she came across a flier advertising a bioinformatics position that would involve studying viruses like Ebola and HIV.

"And so I thought, 'OK, I can do bioinformatics,' and I walked into Dr. Marcie McClure's lab and then she hired me," Hepp told GenomeWeb.

Then in graduate school, Hepp took a few seminars on evolution in infectious diseases and tools to understand that process.

"That's when I thought, 'Wow, I know how to do this stuff, so I can actually get into this," she said.

Hepp is now part of a study that's examining how the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei evolves in a host over time. So far, she and her colleagues have sequenced more than a hundred B. pseudomallei genomes to get a glimpse of changes that allow the bacteria to evade antibiotic treatment as well as to become less virulent. "This reduction of virulence has allowed for long-term infection and the potential for continuous spread," Hepp said.

While this project has focused on characterizing B. pseudomallei within a single host, she and her colleagues are also comparing across hosts. Additionally, they are comparing how B. pseudomallei adapts to its host to how the related B. mallei adapts to its host to determine whether there are similarities.

Hepp noted that there are a number of challenges to research, but the one she's had to grapple with the most is making space for life outside the lab. As a member of her graduate committee, Sudhir Kumar, told her, research is a lifestyle rather than a job, but so, she said, is being a mother. Hepp is the mother of a two-and-a-half-year old little girl.

"Integrating both of those lifestyles has been quite a learning process," Hepp said, adding that working in family-friendly environment and having a supportive partner helps a lot.

Paper of note

Hepp co-authored a paper appearing last fall in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases that examined an outbreak of glanders, which is caused by B. mallei, in horses and camels in Bahrain.

While the disease has been known since antiquity, it has mostly been eradicated from Western countries. However, it has re-emerged in recent years in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America.

Hepp and her colleagues used a combination of high-resolution genotyping and comparative whole-genome sequence analysis to try to determine how the outbreak came to Bahrain, which had previously been free of the disease. They analyzed nine B. mallei isolates taken from different horses and one from a camel and compared them to 15 isolates from a previous outbreak in the United Arab Emirates.

Based on their analyses, the researchers found that two different strains were likely behind the Bahrain outbreak and that they had been imported from outside Bahrain, likely from Syria and Kuwait.

Looking ahead

New technological advances like the development of new sequencing platforms and software tools, Hepp said, are changing the face of evolutionary biology. At the same time, for infectious disease evolutionary biology, there are always new pathogens rearing their heads.

"We just have to adapt to whatever comes our way," she said.

And the Nobel goes to…

The end goal of public health research, Hepp noted, is to decrease mortality. If she were to win the Nobel Prize, she says she'd like it to be for identifying a gene or other part of a pathogen's genome that enables the development of a vaccine or treatment for the disease. 

"If I could use the tools that I know how to use to identify some genomic [target] that would lessen mortality, that would be [ideal]," Hepp said. 


This is the second in a series of Young Investigator Profiles for 2015 that will appear on GenomeWeb over the next few months.