Combining Research and Practice in a Global Society: Stevie Fawcett Draws on WSU Honors College and Microbiology Experiences to Envision an Innovative Future

By: Phyllis Shier, WSU Honors College,

Stevie Fawcett believes taking a global approach to virology and immunology research makes good academic sense. It’s a path he’s forged as an Honors College student in the WSU STARS program, which provides undergraduate students with three research rotations. Fawcett is a senior microbiology and Spanish major, minoring in German and jazz studies. He presented the West Nile virus research results he completed during his rotation in Dr. Alan Goodman’s lab at the European Virology Conference last May in Gdańsk, Poland. Fawcett’s trip was funded by the Honors College and is just one of the international experiences that has enriched his WSU education.

“The Honors College is a huge motivator for me because they really encourage their students to go abroad and have those experiences,” Fawcett said.

In the Goodman lab, Fawcett studied how the West Nile virus replicates by examining the mechanisms that inhibit the immune response in insects. He compared two West Nile virus strains, Kunjin, a less dangerous version from Australia, and NY-99, the deadliest form found in the United States.

“Stevie has a passion and commitment for research, and science. This is exemplified by his eagerness to rotate among labs with diverse research interests as a STARS student and his enthusiasm to present his work at national and international scientific meetings,” Goodman said.

Fawcett studied genes in the JAK/STAT pathway, which is broadly conserved in most species, to learn if the viruses were stopping flies from mounting an immune response. He saw that the Vago gene and same named molecule, for instance, weren’t upregulated as much when flies were infected with NY-99 as with Kunjin virus, where upregulation inhibits virus replication.

“What I thought was happening was that NY-99 had a way of stopping insects from mounting this immune response and producing Vago,” Fawcett said.

Seeing Europe and North America as the largest powerhouses in immunology, Fawcett searched for and found the virology conference in Gdańsk. “I thought it would be a really good opportunity to go abroad and present work and talk with folks who are doing that research over in Europe.”

Last summer, Fawcett received a Fulbright-Mitacs Program Scholarship to the University of Toronto, where he was introduced to research that directly impacts human health. He helped to optimize the way that T cells upregulate a transcription factor that leads to the formation of immunity “memory cells,” with an end goal of increasing the body’s ability to produce more of these cells.

“These cells are very important for identifying and eliminating pathogens and things that are not supposed to be there, like cancer cells,” Fawcett said. That experience inspired him to switch his focus from zoonotic virology to using oncolytic viruses to specifically kill cancer cells.

“You take the concept of a virus, which is incredibly deadly as we’ve discovered in the last few years and…(create) this new treatment option, which I think is incredibly interesting… for me, going forward, that might be a really nice combination,” he said. Fawcett hopes to become an oncolytic researcher while working simultaneously as a medical clinician.

“I changed my focus because the whole experience was just so incredible that I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else.”

In addition to his experience in Dr. Goodman’s lab, Fawcett’s first and final STARS research rotations are with Dr. Michael Letko and Dr. Stephanie Seifert, studying hantaviruses. “The idea of the STARS program is to prepare you to pursue a PhD,” he said.

For Fawcett, that includes building on the international collaboration gained through his WSU experiences. When he graduates in May, he hopes to attend the University of Glasgow’s program in cancer research and precision oncology that looks to breakdown the barrier between medical practice and research.

“If I’m successful in my career path, I’m going to be doing both sides; I’m going to be a physician but I’m also going to be in a lab. Washington State University has been amazing in terms of helping me develop research skills… I have this really nice skillset that is designed to address and study viruses and I can take that and apply it to viral oncolytics.”