“I don’t usually give the brochures at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts a second glance, but for whatever reason, this one jumped out at me,” FoSheng Hsu, graduate student, chuckles. Hsu is a sixth year PhD student in Professor Yuxin Mao’s lab, which is part of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology. The brochure he had seen was for the LabTV video contest. “Visual media has always interested me, especially as a way of communicating science,” Hsu says. He had participated in similar projects before, like the Dance Your PhD contest hosted by Science. He reflects, “In both cases, I was the subject of the film while also the filmmaker. I really enjoy this dual experience.”
Aspiring Young Filmmakers, Inspiring Young Scientists
The purpose of the LabTV contest is to “turn young medical scientists into role models that will inspire the next generation.” An initiative funded by the National Institutes for Health, LabTV trains thousands of aspiring filmmakers to interview young scientists in medical research labs. Their mission is to bridge the worlds of science and communications and to provide role models for prospective high school and undergraduate scientists, particularly women and minorities.
Hsu’s science research involves an interdisciplinary approach, combining microbiology, cell biology, and structural biology, which he says can “seem small” to those who are not well versed in the field. He wants to make it accessible to a wider audience in other ways. “Something fascinating is always happening; it just needs to be translated. Making this video gave me the opportunity to do just that.”
Hsu’s Research: Legionnaires’ Disease
Hsu studies the bacteria pathogen, Legionella pneumophila. This particular strain of bacteria causes Legionnaires’ disease, a very severe form of pneumonia in which the lungs build up mucus. If not treated, it can be life threatening. It is contracted via contaminated aerosol whereby the lung cells absorb the bacteria and as a result, signals the bacteria to secrete proteins into the cells, altering the physiology. “It’s really ingenious the way they survive within our cells. It’s like they’re hijacking certain body functions,” Hsu explains. The Legionella bacteria create a specialized membrane-bound organelle around themselves in order to camouflage themselves as part of the normal cells. By doing this, they escape immune-surveillance. “It hides in plain sight—can you imagine?”
“It’s really ingenious the way they [Legionella bacteria] survive within our cells. It’s like they’re hijacking certain body functions,” Hsu explains.
Hsu is interested in this host-microbe relationship, focusing on two of the proteins secreted by the bacteria to accomplish these ends: SidF alters the lipid composition around the specialized membrane to prevent triggering the host immune system; SidC hijacks the eukaryotic ubiquitination system, which is important in many normal cellular processes. SidC has such high levels of activity that it outcompetes the host cells and takes over their processes. It’s extremely unique in this aspect.
Search for a Cure
Despite current treatment with antibiotics, Legionnaires’ disease can still be fatal in immunocompromised individuals as well as when it’s not treated at an early stage. Hsu believes that understanding the survival mechanism of Legionella is key to developing better treatment and therapeutics. “The bacteria secrete around 300 proteins,” he says, “which makes it even more difficult to work with. Trying to figure them all out is a daunting task, but we’re making small steps with our findings about the roles of SidF and SidC.” Hsu remains optimistic.
Using Media to Explain Science
Hsu’s passion for his research explains his interest in visual media, and why he entered the LabTV video contest. “I think it’s crucial to participate in projects like these so that we constantly have fresh minds joining the field—young people who are excited about doing work that could save lives. Using multimedia as a way to encourage this, especially now, is a really great tactic to bridge scientific understanding and the public.” Hsu plans to go into academia, and believes he could incorporate his passion for media arts into his teaching methods. “I think there’s a trend in which students are not engaged with science as something fun or meaningful, which could change if we begin to present it differently. I see the partnership of science and the arts as a way to do this, an invitation to students to enjoy thinking and to appreciate the small things in life.