Professor spends sabbatical at Emory lab

Posted on May 3, 2016

Anna Blenda  crop

Dr. Anna Blenda

Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Anna Blenda recently served for eight months as a visiting associate professor at Emory University, working full-time in Dr. Sean Stowell’s laboratory, which operates under the umbrella of Emory’s Antibiotic Resistance Center.

Ronnie Funk looking down

Ronnie Funk

In a departure from the typical process, in which professors direct their students toward graduate school or internship positions, Blenda said she actually gained a place in the lab at Emory through 2015 magna cum laude graduate Christopher Ronald Funk, a double major in biology and chemistry and last year’s H.M. Young Ring winner.

“Ronnie Funk got accepted into the M.D. program at Emory last year. He then found a research position in one of the labs there and told me about it,” Blenda explained.

“The project sounded quite interesting to me, and through Ronnie I got in touch with Dr. Stowell, who welcomed me into his lab for a research sabbatical.”

Stowell, the principal investigator of the lab, is a faculty member in pathology at Emory School of Medicine. The project that piqued Blenda’s interest focuses on a family of proteins called galectins, which possess antibacterial properties and the ability to target some kinds of bacteria.

Galectins “could potentially be used as antibiotics to treat infections without wiping out all the bacteria in the body,” according to Quinn Eastman, author of an introduction to a recently released video about the research project.

Blenda, along with other laboratory colleagues, appears in the video, in which Stowell compares galectins to sheep dogs protecting cells (sheep) against bacteria (wolves) that disguise themselves (wolves in sheep’s clothing). Blenda showed the video to her students when she returned to Erskine for the spring semester.

Working at Emory for eight months meant a move for Blenda, and adjustments included coping with increased traffic, enrolling her daughter in a new school (with a 6:30 a.m. school bus pick-up time), and living in an apartment instead of a house, to name a few.

She enjoyed the well-integrated liberal arts community at Emory and also found opportunities for her daughter to participate in rhythmic gymnastics.

The research sabbatical required that Blenda, who joined the Erskine College faculty in 2008, become accustomed to full-time laboratory work after spending seven years focused on teaching undergraduates. While the techniques used in the lab were familiar, her role required her to shift gears.

Still, she kept her students in mind as she considered what she might take back to Erskine from her sabbatical experience.

“I brought back some data so our molecular biochemistry students can do data analysis on it,” she said. “The students will present their findings at a symposium planned by [Erskine Professor of Chemistry] Dr. Joel Boyd.”

Blenda hopes to continue her collaboration with the lab and has invited Stowell to speak at Erskine. She notes that some of her students are investigating summer research opportunities and other offerings at Emory.

She was glad to return to Erskine for the spring semester, and happy to see her students again after eight months in the research environment at Emory.

“The whole experience was very intense, but it was totally worth it!” Blenda said.