Here’s what two NAU 2007 Graduate Research Fellowship recipients are up to

Leo Kenefic
Leo Kenefic

Research to control bacteria’s reach

Leo Kenefic was a teenager when his sister died of cancer—an experience that put him on the road to learning about disease.

“I’ve kept with science ever since, with a proclivity for infectious disease,” said Kenefic, who has spent three years working at the cancer center at the University of New Mexico and five years researching HIV at the National Cancer Institute.

Now, with the help of a 2007 Graduate Research Fellowship from Science Foundation Arizona, Kenefic is earning his Ph.D. at Northern Arizona University, with a focus on tracking how an infectious disease spreads.

His dissertation, “Genetic Diversity of Bacillus Anthracis in North America,” is to help other scientists understand the genetic characteristics of anthrax so researchers can track its transmission within a population.

“Being able to track the movements of disease gives us an understanding of how the infectious agent persists in the environment,” Kenefic explained. “Being able to figure out strain identity is important for including and excluding isolates from an outbreak and allows us to identify source strains.”

Kenefic said his genetic data research is contradicting the belief that anthrax got its foothold in North America from contaminated animal products during the colonial expansion. He is discovering that the prevalent anthrax type, the North America strain, probably originated from Canada and dispersed south into the United States, “long before Columbus happened upon the Americas,” he said.

Kenefic, who is married with two children, hopes to make Arizona his permanent home.

Talima Pearson
Talima Pearson

Doctoral student seeks control over the spread of disease

Instead of seeking funding to help complete his doctoral degree at Northern Arizona University, researcher Talima Pearson is in pursuit of ways to control the spread of diseases.

A 2007 Graduate Research Fellowship from Science Foundation Arizona is supporting Pearson’s research for his dissertation, “Evolutionary and Epidemiological Tracking of Pathogenic Bacteria.”

Pearson’s research is focusing on developing smarter and faster diagnostic tools to give physicians more timely and accurate information on the cause of a disease.

“I am using a variety of molecular methods for DNA fingerprinting of entire populations for four different species of pathogenic bacteria in order to determine how strains within each species are related to each other,” Pearson explained. “Different species of bacteria have distinct biological characteristics that present different challenges in determining relatedness and tracking evolutionary history.”

Pearson, who has always been curious about the way things work, hopes his research work will result in new ways to identify the sources of infections in humans and livestock.

His curiosity for DNA fingerprinting was sparked during his master’s degree research work at NAU fingerprinting the DNA of birds in Paul Keim’s Genetics Lab.

Upon graduation, Pearson hopes to continue working at NAU and make Arizona his home, “doing epidemiological research that will hopefully benefit a wide range of people,” he said.