Desmond Edwards was a small child when he first heard of typhoid fever. Fortunately, he did not have the disease. He was watching a cartoon public health ad. The cartoon, produced by the Pan American Health Organization, was designed to educate people in its home country, Jamaica, about the importance of vaccination against diseases like typhoid. The typhoid character in the cartoon was so obnoxious that he had nightmares about him.
Edwards had his fair share of hospital visits throughout his childhood. But, his own struggles with infections and disease, and those typhoid cartoon nightmares, became his inspiration to pursue a career in the study of human disease. At the age of 6, Edwards was experimenting with impromptu baking soda in reused glitter containers in his kitchen. Today, he’s a senior at MIT, specializing in biology and bioengineering, thanks to a team of dedicated mentors and an insatiable curiosity about how the human body works – or, more specifically, how diseases keep it from functioning.
Finding a path in research
Edwards knew he wanted to do some research but says he assumed it was something you did after you have your diploma. So imagine his surprise upon arriving at MIT in 2018 and meeting classmates who not only had researched, but already had publications. Realizing that he could relaunch his career, he sought out research opportunities and enrolled in Biology course 7.102 (Introduction to Molecular Biology Techniques) for his period of first-year freelance activities. The course was specifically aimed at first year students like him with no lab experience.
“It was a great first look at how research is done,” Edwards said of the class. The students took water samples from the Charles River and were asked to identify the strains of bacteria found in these samples using various biological techniques. They looked at the bacteria under a microscope. They looked at how the samples metabolized different carbon sources and determined whether they could be stained with different dyes. They were even able to try basic genetic sequencing. “We knew where we were starting. And we knew the end goal, ”says Edwards. The in-between depended on them.
Class 7.102 is taught by Mandana Sassanfar, lecturer in biology and director of the Department of Diversity and Popularization of Science. For Sassanfar, the class is also an opportunity to find laboratory internships for students. In Edwards’ case, she literally drove him to Assistant Professor Becky Lamason’s lab, accompanying him one evening to meet with postdoctoral fellow Jon McGinn to talk about the lab and the opportunities there. After Edwards expressed interest in Lamason, she responded within 30 minutes. McGinn even followed up to answer any outstanding questions.
“I think that’s really what drove him to the limit,” he says of his decision to take a job in the Lamason lab. “I saw that they were interested not only in having me as a person to help them do research, but also in my personal development. “
At the edge of cells and disciplines
The Lamason lab studies the life cycle of two different pathogens, trying to understand how bacteria move between cells. Edwards focused on Rickettsia parkeri, a tick-borne pathogen that is responsible for spotted fever. This kind of Rickettsia is what biologists call an obligate intracellular pathogen, which means it resides in cells and can only survive when in a host. “I like to call it a glorified virus,” jokes Edwards.
Edwards is enthusiastic about describing the different ways in which R. parkeri can outwit its infected host. It has evolved to escape the cell’s phagosome, the small liquid sac that forms from the cell membrane and engulfs organisms like bacteria that pose a threat. Once it passes the phagosome and enters the cell, it takes control of the cellular machinery, just like a virus. At this point in the life cycle, a bacteria will usually replicate so many times that the infected cell will burst and the pathogen will spread widely. R. parkeri, however, can also spread to uninfected cells directly across the membrane where two cells are touching. By not causing a cell to burst, the bacteria can spread without alerting the host to its presence.
“From a disease perspective, it’s extremely interesting,” says Edwards. “If you don’t leave the cell or are not detected, you don’t see antibodies. You don’t see immune cells. It is very difficult to get this standard immune response.
While at the lab, Edwards worked on various projects related to Rickettsia, including the development of genetic tools to study the pathogen and the examination of potential genes that may be important in its life cycle. His projects lie at the intersection of biology and biological engineering.
“For me, I sort of live between these spaces,” says Edwards. “I am extremely interested in understanding the mechanisms underlying all of biology. But I don’t just want to understand these systems. I also want to design them and apply them in a way that can benefit society.
Science for society
Last year, Edwards won the Whitehead Award from the Department of Biology, honoring students with “outstanding promise for a career in biological research.” But his extracurricular activities were motivated more by his desire to apply science for tangible social benefits.
“How do you take the science that you have done in the lab, in different research contexts, and translate it in a way that really benefits the public? ” he asks.
Science education is especially important to Edwards, given the educational opportunities he has been given to help him get to MIT. As a high school student, Edwards participated in an initiative of the Caribbean Science Foundation called the Student Program for Innovation in Science and Engineering. SPISE, as it is called, is designed to encourage and support Caribbean students interested in a career in STEM fields. The program is modeled after MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program. Cardinal Warde, professor of electrical engineering, is himself from the Caribbean and is faculty director for MITES and SPISE.
“This experience not only kind of opened my eyes to what was available, what was in the realm of possibility, but also provided assistance in accessing MIT,” Edwards says of SPISE. For example, the program helped with college applications and worked with him to secure an internship at a biotech company when he first moved to the United States.
“If education is faltering, then you’re not rebuilding the realm of science,” Edwards argues. “You don’t turn on the younger generations and the public doesn’t care. “
Edwards has also been instrumental in the MIT Biotechnology Group, a campus-wide student group dedicated to connecting the MIT community with thought leaders in industry, business and academia. For Edwards, the biotech and pharmaceutical industries play a clear role in treating disease, and he knew he wanted to join the group even before arriving at MIT. In 2019, he became co-director of the Groupe Biotech Industry Initiative, a program focused on preparing members for careers in industry. In 2020, he became undergraduate chair, and this year he is co-chair of the entire organization. Edwards speaks with pride of what the Biotech Group has accomplished during his tenure on the board, pointing out that they not only have the largest cohort ever created this year, but it is also the first time that the group is in the majority at the undergraduate level.
Somehow, between his research and outreach work, Edwards finds time until the minor in French, plays for the Quidditch team, and is co-chair of the course board. 20, among other activities. It’s a balance that Edwards mastered during his time at MIT due to his genuine enthusiasm and interest in everything he does.
“I don’t like not understanding things,” he jokes. “It applies to science, but it also extends to people.”