As a child growing up in Albania, Arlind Mara was frequently sick. In order to understand his diagnosis and the discussions between his parents and doctors, he would read his older brother’s medical textbooks. The experience sparked a lifelong interest in science and medicine and led him to pursue a Ph.D. in bacteriology in the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Sciences (PVS), where he studies pathogens with the hopes of creating safe and effective vaccines to protect humans and animals. Here is what he said in an interview.
Where did you study as an undergraduate?
I was an undergraduate here at UConn and graduated in May 2017.
What was your major?
I began in general biology, but then I changed majors and graduated with a BS in molecular and cell biology.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school?
I knew that I wanted to study infectious diseases very early on, but I did not know that I was going to end up studying them at the graduate level. I grew up in Albania, where wet lab research and PhD programs were practically non-existent, although they are becoming more common now. So graduate school was not really an option for me until my family moved to the US.
I started becoming involved in undergraduate research as part of Dr. Steven J. Geary’s laboratory in PVS. I researched the prevalence of the house finch strain of Mycoplasma gallisepticum, primarily a pathogen in poultry, in wild songbird populations. Some of the work I did on this project eventually ended up being published and that, combined with the fact that I loved doing research, was the final push I needed to decide that I definitely wanted to pursue a graduate degree.
Who is your advisor?
My major advisor is Dr. Steven J. Geary, professor and head of PVS and director of the Center of Excellence for Vaccine Research.
What is your field of research?
My lab studies pathogenic Mycoplasmas, a group of atypical bacteria that cause disease in humans and animals. We focus mostly on identifying and assigning functions to the various virulence factors of Mycoplasma species with a focus on vaccine development against these disease-causing agents. Specifically, I am working on elucidating the mechanism of vaccine-induced disease exacerbation of Mycoplasma pneumoniae induced pneumonia and developing an effective and protective vaccine for it.
M. pneumoniae is a significant human respiratory pathogen as it causes roughly 40 percent of diagnosed cases of community-acquired pneumonia and is quickly developing resistance to antibiotics that are commonly used to treat respiratory infections. M. pneumoniae infection can also aggravate symptoms of asthma and may even predispose affected individuals to developing asthma, meaning there is a significant need for a vaccine against this disease. Past efforts to develop an effective vaccine failed however, as the vaccine ended up making the disease worse in individuals that became subsequently infected. Dr. Steven Geary, Dr. Steven Szczepanek [assistant professor in PVS] and I are really interested in learning why the vaccine exacerbated disease instead of being protective and using what we learn to develop a vaccine that will be safe and effective.
Name one aspect of your work that you like.
There are many aspects of my job that I enjoy, but by far my favorite part is the lab work itself. I get to work with infectious diseases and animal models, which has always been a dream of mine. Plus, the thought that the research I am performing will potentially have a significant impact on human health and in the field of infectious disease and vaccinology makes everything even more interesting.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?
I would say my greatest accomplishment so far has been receiving very good student evaluations as a teaching assistant for a course during the fall 2017 semester. I enjoy helping students to learn about science and seeing that I had accomplished that from the students themselves was very exhilarating.
What do you hope to do once you get your degree?
At this point, I would like to pursue a position in academia. I enjoy doing research and teaching about infectious diseases and becoming a professor at an R1 research university seems to be the best way of doing that.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?
I discovered my passion for studying infectious disease from an early age. I used to get sick a lot as a kid and would visit the hospital relatively frequently and I was always interested in learning what the doctors were talking about when they would talk to my parents about the diagnosis. My older brother was studying medicine at the time, so I found myself spending a lot of time reading about medical microbiology, sometimes at the expense of my own schoolwork. Although if you asked me at the time, I never would have thought that I would end up studying infectious disease for a living. Life has a funny way of working out.