Jennifer Johnston ’21 received a We Act Grant for the summer of 2019. Read her testimonial below about her how she made vaccines from plant viruses. 

Head Shot of Jennifer

Jennifer Johnston (SCR ’21)

For the past two semesters, I have been lucky to work in Professor Larry Grill’s lab at KGI, learning to make vaccines from plant viruses. The Grill lab’s main technology involves tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), a plant virus that is harmless to humans and animals. In the lab, we decorate TMV with proteins from another virus–a virus for which we want to create a vaccine. Then, this modified TMV, now a vaccine, is put into tobacco plants, and the tobacco plants naturally replicate it. The end product is a creative solution to the usually very expensive methods of vaccine production: a harmless and cost effective vaccine for humans and/or animals.

Several years ago, the Grill lab began to collaborate with the University of Botswana to make a cost effective vaccine for lumpy skin disease (LSD), a cattle disease that greatly affects the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Botswana. Since then, Professor Grill has been taking students to Botswana to learn how this technology can be realistically implemented in rural communities to prevent livestock illness and death. Students have learned how to produce the vaccine in lab, researched locals’ opinions on accept

ing this vaccine, and have even directly administered the vaccine to cattle free of charge. This program is a direct and incredibly critical service to these farmers, who thereafter don’t have to worry about losing their main source of income to a preventable disease.

This year, our trip is working on another disease, peste des petits ruminants (PPR), which affects goats and sheep in Botswana and beyond. It is a disease with the potential to be globally eradicated. The overall goal for this disease is the same as for LSD: to develop and effectively introduce a vaccine for these animals that will help Botswana farmers and their communities, and to teach students how to appropriately engage in foreign public health missions. Healthy animals means economic security for these farmers, and economic security can lead to positive impacts on countless fronts, including allowing more girls to stay enrolled in school instead of having to work at home. Meanwhile, us students gain the valuable experience of doing real science outside of the United States, so that in the future we may conduct informed, responsible, and impactful projects in foreign countries. It’s a win-win for everyone!

Jennifer workin in a lab

Jennifer (right) working in the lab.

I am currently in Botswana for four weeks through this KGI Botswana Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (BSURE), organized by Professor Grill. Myself and about ten other selected students from the Claremont Colleges have two hour Setswana class every weekday morning, 8am-10am. It has been so much fun learning how to speak and read the language and connect better with locals. Then, we work in the lab alongside undergraduates from the University of Botswana (UOB) for the rest of the day (until 5pm). In lab, Professor Grill and post-doc Kelvin Phiri, a UB alum, have been teaching us Grill lab’s technology and the molecular-biology techniques required for carrying out the vaccine-making protocol. We run experiments to create a vaccine for PPR. Since I already have some experience with these techniques, I’ve been using this as an opportunity to hone my teaching abilities with my peers. Outside of our class and lab time, we are encouraged to engage with locals and use the language as much as possible. Understanding how people live, work, and study science in Botswana has been an invaluable experience.