Alexa Thompson

Supervisor: Joel Dacks

Project: Candidate gene discovery for pregnancy-associated malaria using RNA sequencing


Oxford, NS

Degree program:

Bachelor of Science with Specialization in Cell Biology

What's been the best part of your experience so far?

The best part of my experience so far would definitely have to be obtaining results from an experiment after troubleshooting it for weeks! My project has really made me appreciate how much time and effort it truly takes to obtain results in research. I've also really enjoyed becoming more of a self-dependent student; there's a certain level of satisfaction I feel when I critically analyze something or successfully run an experiment or troubleshoot by myself. It helps me gain confidence in my intellectual and motor skill abilities in the lab.

How has your studentship helped you towards your career aspirations?

In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I was leaning into going into the public/global health field for my career, and my studentship has really affirmed that it's what I want to do. Moreover, it emphasized that my true passion lies within prenatal populations and preventative medicine. It helped motivate me to apply to do my masters of science, and in September I will be starting my master's project in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, looking at the epidemiology of Hepatitis C in prenatal populations in Alberta.

Lay abstract:

Malaria infects millions of people every year worldwide, and with the increase in immigration and travellers in North America, the prevalence in Canada is increasing. Caused most severely by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, pregnant women and children are especially susceptible to infection and the life-threatening complications that accompany it. A specific subset of malaria called pregnancy-associated malaria occurs when the parasite infects maternal erythrocytes (red blood cells) and then travels to and infects the placenta. Binding and adhesion of the infected erythrocytes to the placenta is mediated by a protein called VAR2CSA. As the main virulence factor in pregnancy-associated malaria, VAR2CSA is a widely accepted vaccine candidate against this disease. However, removal of VAR2CSA from the parasite doesn't inhibit total binding of infected erythrocytes to the placenta, indicating that there are still other proteins involved in the process. Our research focuses on identifying other proteins that are co-expressed and upregulated with VAR2CSA during placental infection in an attempt to uncover other potential therapeutic targets. Here we propose to use RNA sequencing and computational methods in a comparative approach between P.falciparum infected erythrocytes and non-placental bound P.falciparum infected erythrocytes to identify candidate genes involved in VAR2CSA mediated placental infection. Identification of these proteins could be crucial in developing an efficient multivalent vaccine against pregnancy-associated malaria and help women and children across the globe.