Intern Spotlight: Burke Lab Intern Kendyl Smith Investigates How Cells Defend Against Viral Infections

Article written by: Sanjana Gupta, 2023 communications intern

After completing her first undergraduate year at Penn State, college student Kendyl Smith wanted to gain research experience during the summer. She came across studies from virologist James Burke, Ph.D., an assistant professor at The Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology, in Jupiter, Florida.

Burke’s research focuses on understanding cellular changes during viral infections, including COVID-19. As a biochemistry and molecular biology major, Smith felt Burke’s research aligned perfectly with her interests. Excited to explore the practical applications of her major and its significance in the scientific field, she joined the Burke lab for the summer through the institute’s National Science Foundation-supported Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows program.  

Smith’s summer project focused on comprehending how cells respond to viral infections. When a virus invades a cell, the cell takes action to hinder viral activity by reducing certain cellular functions. At the same time, the cell triggers the transcription of various antiviral genes to fight the invader.

One of the central mysteries the Burke lab aims to uncover is how cells manage to shut down certain cellular functions while activating the production of these antiviral genes. This knowledge is crucial in understanding the host-pathogen battle that occurs at the cellular level during viral infections. Smith has been using standard and advanced lab techniques like western blotting and single-cell-level microscopy in her experiments. Her research also focuses on studying viral RNA biology, and how the host’s innate immune response interacts with viral RNA. She received training in advanced molecular and cell biology techniques, such as single-molecule SM-FISH and RT-qPCR, broadening her skill set and benefitting her future research career plans. 

As someone new to research, Smith said she felt excited but also uncertain about the likelihood of encountering unexpected results or facing failures. Over the summer, she said she came to understand that research is inherently unpredictable and filled with challenges. Navigating through the obstacles and learning from failures is an essential part of the research journey, she said.  Burke’s mentorship and guidance, and the supportive environment in the Burke lab, have been instrumental in helping Smith build resilience and a strategic approach to overcoming day-to-day setbacks. 

Throughout her research journey, Smith’s ultimate goal has been to contribute to the effort to understand significant questions about cellular responses to viral infections. She aspires to see her experiments replicated and published in a research journal, knowing that such contributions could have real-world implications in combating viral diseases.

“The prospect of being part of a project that addresses viral infections, and having my name associated with such accomplishments, is truly rewarding and fulfilling,” Smith said.

Smith said her experience working in the Burke lab has been both eye-opening and transformative. Immersed in the captivating realm of cellular responses to viral infections, Smith has acquired valuable research skills while bravely embracing the uncertainties inherent in scientific exploration. Motivated by the potential to make meaningful contributions to the understanding of host-pathogen interactions, Smith approaches each experiment with dedication and enthusiasm. As Smith’s research journey continues, her determination to leave a lasting impact on the field drives her to continue advancing scientific knowledge about the ongoing battle against viral infections.