Fighting Drug Resistance with Resilience
A lifelong passion for research and desire to inspire the next generation of scientists make graduate student Alecia Dent a UMB Champion of Excellence.
By Chris Zang
August 27, 2018
“I was always a little science nerd,” Alecia Dent admits.
As a child in her basement, Dent conducted experiments. “I would try to replicate experiments at home that I learned at school, and most of the time I didn’t have the materials needed so I improvised. My mother was not happy about that,” she says with a laugh. “I just loved the idea of how matter changes. I always tried to find things around the house that I could mix so I could observe how the physical properties of those substances were altered but never destroyed.”
Things like medications, for instance. Dent’s father is diabetic, and her mother has high blood pressure and carpal tunnel syndrome. “They both took a slew of medications,” she says, “which always bothered me. They never took me along to their doctor visits, so I could never really understand why they were taking so many pills, and they could barely explain it to me.
“They’d say, ‘The doctor told me I needed it.’” Chemically speaking, Dent wondered how the medications were keeping her parents healthy.
“It’s what spurred me along down that path to science — seeing how those things affected my parents and just mixing stuff to see what happened. That’s where my passion for science came from. It was just curiosity and a love for my parents and seeing what they were going through,” she says.
Today, Dent is applying that same curiosity on a grander scale as a student at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. Under the guidance of Angela Wilks, PhD, professor and the Isaac E. Emerson chair in chemical and biological discovery in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dent is researching the heme transfer pathways of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterial pathogen that causes infections in immunocompromised patients.
A few years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that multi-drug resistant strains of certain bacteria — staphylococcus, acinetobacter, and others — are emerging. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is one of them. “We want to get ahead of the curve,” Dent says. “We can’t just use antibiotics anymore. We need to have novel drugs that target the virulence factors of these bacteria so that they won’t become easily resistant like they have with antibiotics.”
Like most living things, the bacteria need iron to survive and combat the body’s immune system or escape it. Since heme is bound to about 95 percent of iron in the body, it’s an important source for the bacteria to acquire iron upon infection.
“Researchers have figured out a way to uptake those heme molecules from the host system and break it down to get iron,” Dent says. “Our understanding of how that heme uptake system works will allow us to identify druggable targets in that pathway.”
To date, Dent has presented a poster at several international conferences. Most recently, she won a poster award and a travel award on her findings at the Cell Biology of Metals Gordon Research Conference (GRC). She was elected chair and is currently planning the Gordon Research Seminar (GRS) associated with the GRC. The GRS is for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from research organizations around the world to discuss their novel scientific findings and network with fellow colleagues to further their research. The GRS will be held mid-July 2019 in Spain.
“Alecia has an extremely healthy outlook to research, understanding the frustrations that come with bench research, while maintaining an optimistic outlook,” says Wilks. “She approaches her research with enthusiasm and does not give up easily, nor get discouraged. She has shown a level of maturity in her approach to her own research project and in the mentoring of her junior lab mates.”
Born in Jamaica, Dent immigrated to the U.S. with her family as a child. Growing up in Philadelphia, she watched as her family, unfamiliar with this country, took lower-paying jobs based on skills they could do, like house cleaning or auto mechanics — they worked their way up, and they worked hard.
“I feel like I have a different perspective,” she says, “because I came to this country when I was really young. I saw the work that my parents put in and realized that I had to go above and beyond to accomplish my dreams.”
Before coming to the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), Dent received her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2012, and later worked as a post-baccalaureate scholar at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Among her honors are the NIH National Research Service Award, a Chemistry-Biology Interface fellowship, and a diversity research supplement award under a parent R01 grant.
Set to graduate in fall 2019, Dent says there are many avenues she wants to pursue. A sign of the times, she feels compelled by the need for strong advocacy and nationwide representation for scientists. So, she’s considering a career in science policy. Inevitably though, she’d love to go the academic route.
“I really like the idea of teaching and mentoring students,” she says. “I want to give back to students the way my mentors helped me.”
While her family was her inspiration for science as a career, Dr. Wilks has helped to set Alecia’s career in motion. “She’s inspired me a lot,” Dent says. “She’s more than a boss to me. She’s not only training and teaching me to be an innovative scientist, but I’m able to speak to her about problems in science or in my own life. She’s always there to give me advice.”
Wilks even nominated Dent for the coveted Meyerhoff Graduate Fellows Program that promotes diversity among students pursuing doctoral degrees in biomedical and behavioral sciences. In 2014 Dent was one of the first in her department to receive the award.
“I think it’s important for students to see someone who looks like them,” Dent says, “or someone with similar experiences and know that while it is tough getting your PhD, it’s also possible — because people like you before you have done it.”
The program’s learning and networking opportunities elevated Dent’s research on to a national stage. Four years later, Dent still mentors and guides new generations of Meyerhoff scholarship recipients. She’s visited Baltimore public schools to get kids excited about science, and she’s helped to recruit young women and minorities into science careers through various University programs.
“In the end, you have to do what makes you happy, and that alone will have the highest impact,” she says. “I want to be that person — to help others not just with their science, but with their life, too. I want to help build the next generation of scientists.”