Curiosity and Passion
Pursuit of curiosity is the founding ethos of Lindsey Burcham’s lab at UT, and you can feel that curiosity and passion come through when speaking to her about the work she’s done, and the plans she has for her lab.
Burcham, assistant professor of microbiology, received her PhD at Mississippi State University, and completed her post-doc work at the University of Colorado-Anschutz Medical Campus. A majority of her research at both these institutions focused on host-pathogen interactions between Streptococcus pneumoniae, Group B Streptococcus and human beings. She joined the Department of Microbiology in August 2022, and her growing lab will study these interactions.
S. pneumoniae is a commensal bacteria of the nasopharynx, but can become pathogenic when transplanted to other parts of the body. It is the source of many infections such as pneumonia, recurring ear infections in children, and even meningitis. Likewise, Group B Streptococcus is a commensal bacteria of the vaginal lumen, but becomes extremely harmful if it passes through the placenta of pregnant persons leading to ascending infections with a variety of harmful consequences: miscarriage, still-birth, or even meningitis or sepsis in the neonate.
“This lifestyle switch where these commensal organisms exist asymptomatically, causing no harm, and they get into the right host or space and just wreak havoc. How they evolved to do both things is the basis of my interest,” Burcham said.
The lab uses immortalized epithelial cell lines isolated from the vaginal lumen, the cervix, and an endothelial line from the human blood-brain barrier to observe S. pneumoniae’s ability to invade and thrive in the cell line. This is especially helpful for examining the changes to gene expression in both the cell line and the bacteria itself.
Mice are used in the model for examining Group B Strep. The lab directly inoculates the mouse’s vaginal lumen to see how the bacteria travels to the cervix or uterus; they also place the bacteria in the blood and observe its ability to cross into the mouse’s blood-brain barrier.
Beyond simply examining the bacteria’s efficiency in the mice based on controlling their diet. They find that zinc-deficient mice have weakened immune response and are more susceptible to infection.
As she builds her lab, Burcham plans to foster an environment of collaboration and curiosity.
“You can teach anyone the science, but I can’t teach you to be curious.”
It will be exciting to see Burcham’s lab explore opportunistic human pathogens at UT, with implications on maternal, fetal, and pediatric health.