Theresa Jones - Graduate Student Spotlight
Generally, it is rather easy to ignore the complex microbiome surrounding our everyday endeavors; however, as you listen to Theresa Jones passionately describe T. gondii toxoplasma, which she studies as doctoral researcher in Professor Chunlei Su’s lab, you start to look at your environment through the eyes of a microbiologist.
Jones explains that toxoplasma is found everywhere in the world, and although it generally goes unnoticed with a healthy immune system, many illnesses are linked to this parasite. It is also extremely dangerous for pregnant women, making it an undeniable concern. Hoping to mitigate its negative effects, Jones studies the little understood T. gondii sexual reproduction processes using an uncommon study environment: cat intestines.
Why cats? House cats are, surprisingly, a common avenue for the spread of T. gondii, as they often become infected by prey that harbor the parasite in their muscle tissues. Thousands of T. gondii oocysts, or encapsulated zygotes, spread into the environment when an infected cat defecates, infecting humans who consume contaminated water or vegetables.
Specifically, Jones aims to create a lab-friendly environment for toxoplasma research.
“I’m working on an in-vitro system to support sexual reproduction,” Jones elaborates. “I’m trying to replicate what happens in cat intestines in a culture tube.”
Building this system could help shed light on the complex process without the need for live animals.
Aside from her research, Jones is also dedicated to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within the UT microbiology department. Her efforts stem from her own feelings of underrepresentation in academia.
“Being a black woman and coming from a different background, I noticed I was treated differently in the classroom,” she says. As her education advanced, she noted there were increasingly fewer students who looked like her. “People have this idea of what a scientist looks like, but why can’t a scientist look like me?” Jones found herself asking.
During the summer of 2020, she approached the department about creating a diversity committee, and soon, Jones and Professors Todd Reynolds, Jill Mikucki, and David Talmy had created a space for open discussions and effective planning. The group created a detailed diversity plan, which aimed to address Jones’ concerns.
“We set intentional goals to create a welcoming environment and attract and retain more people that are underrepresented,” Jones explains. The committee also created newsletters, invited lecturers from underrepresented backgrounds, and notified the department of diversity-focused events.
Jones is incredibly happy with the results of the committee’s efforts. “I’m starting to see different people and viewpoints coming in and pouring out,” she smiles. “It is such a beautiful thing!”
-By Taylor Mattioli