Alumna’s war on mosquitoes began with a big dream and a small college

Posted on January 26, 2015

April Clayton in the Viral Diseases lab at the National Institutes of Health

April Clayton ’08 in the Viral Diseases lab at the National Institutes of Health

April Clayton, a 2008 Erskine College graduate and H.M. Young Ring recipient, completed a double major in biology and chemistry, was named South Carolina Independent College Student of the Year for 2007, and went on to earn a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in 2014. Here is an update on this remarkable graduate, now engaged in research at the National Institutes of Health.

It helps to know your enemies before going into battle. By this measure, April Clayton is well prepared for the war she is waging on mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.

As a post-doctoral fellow in virology at the National Institutes of Health, she uses her knowledge of mosquitoes, chemistry and biology (acquired after years of study and research) to fight against West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever, two very nasty diseases for which there is no vaccine and no cure.

If she’s successful in developing a vaccine, millions of lives could be saved. “Most people know that West Nile Virus is common in the United States,” says Clayton. “What is not so commonly known is that Dengue Fever infects as many as 400 million people each year and is a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics.”

Mosquitoes haven’t always been at the forefront of Clayton’s mind. In fact, when she was a high school student in the small town of Neeses, South Carolina, she wanted to be an investigative journalist. But with some encouragement, she applied and was accepted to the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics (SCGSSM). That’s where Clayton had her first research experience, participating in a program at Clemson University with other SCGSSM students.

“I worked on African sleeping sickness at Clemson. This is where I discovered the wonderful world of science. I said to myself, I really want to be a scientist and study infectious disease. That’s when I decided that I was going to major in biology and chemistry so I’d be well equipped to pursue a Ph.D. in the biological sciences,” says Clayton.

So she looked for a college where she could combine her love for science with her desire to carve out a new path for herself. For some, Erskine – a small Christian college in Due West, South Carolina – seemed an unlikely choice. “I looked at several big schools,” she says, “but I’m glad I chose Erskine. No other school can offer the rigorous academic program, the personalized research opportunities or the family-like learning environment that you’ll find at Erskine. Plus, I really enjoyed the small college atmosphere — it is the perfect-sized school to learn and have fun without being overwhelmed.”

April Clayton, won a UNCF-Merck award in 2012 while at Johns Hopkins.

April Clayton, center, received a UNCF-Merck Graduate Science Research Dissertation Fellowship in 2012 while at Johns Hopkins.

While at Erskine, Clayton conducted research both on and off campus. “I loved the one-on-one research opportunities with my Erskine professors,” she says. “But the off-campus research opportunities in the summer were equally critical as I was learning how to be a scientific investigator.” She spent her summers working as a researcher at both Clemson University and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“April is an outstanding example of how Erskine College fosters intellectual and personal growth for every student,” says Erskine College President Dr. Paul Kooistra.

“We place a great deal of emphasis on undergraduate research and student success, and one of the best ways of doing that is having students conduct original research with professors and scientists in their chosen field.”

When her fellowship at the National Institutes of Health ends, Clayton says she’d like to continue her fight to eradicate diseases spread by mosquitoes. “I want to have my own lab investigating infectious diseases like Dengue Fever and West Nile Virus. I also want to teach on the college level where I can teach and mentor students both in a classroom and in a laboratory.”