Howard University Graduate School

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Doctoral Students Discuss Dissertation Research: Hatajai Ahkan Lassiter and Kasun Sameera Millawithanachchi

By Anastasia Tamali

Anastasia Tamali, doctoral student in political science, recently conducted interviews with Hatajai Ahkan Lassiter, fifth-year doctoral student in microbiology; and Kasun Sameera Millawithanachchi, third-year doctoral student in political science. The interviews showcase their doctoral research and future career plans.

Hatajai Ahkan Lassiter
Hatajai Ahkan Lassiter

Interview with Hatajai Ahkan Lassiter

Q: Where are you from?
Lassiter: I was born and raised in Miamisburg, OH. I have resided in Silver Spring, MD since 2012, when I relocated to attend Howard University.

Q: What influenced you to choose your current field of study?
Lassiter: During my matriculation in the M.S. program in biology at North Carolina Central University in Durham, NC, my thesis research focused upon infectious disease and bacteriology utilizing microbiological techniques. Also, I was required to perform as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Microbiology undergraduate laboratories. These experiences developed my interest and passion for microbiology in the realms of research and, in particular, the dissemination of knowledge via pedagogy.

Q: Could you tell us about your dissertation?
Lassiter: My dissertational research examines the relation of reduced susceptibility of HIV-1 progression and/or infection in individuals with sickle cell disease. Previous research externally and internally has depicted a putative inhibitory role of a host protein, p21, which is involved in normal cell cycle control. This research has also been shown to inhibit host proteins that are necessary in the viral infection and progression of HIV-1. Thus, we are attempting to attenuate or inhibit p21 activity to determine if, in fact, this implicated role relates to why individuals with higher expressional levels of p21 (sickle cell disease and HIV-1 elite controllers) have reduced infection susceptibilities and/or undetectable viral loads.

Q: Tell us briefly about the theoretical framework in developing your research?
Lassiter: As aforementioned, previous investigations demonstrated an association of reduced HIV-1 susceptibility in individuals with higher p21 expressional levels, specifically in HIV-1 elite controllers. These elite controllers are those which have undetectable viral loads void of any antiretroviral chemotherapeutics, along with higher p21 levels (both mRNA and protein levels) relative to non-controllers. Individuals with sickle cell disease demonstrated a lower frequency of HIV-1 infection and in several reports, were found to have elevated p21 mRNA levels. We were interested in the continuance of this investigation to determine if the p21 protein levels were also elevated similarly to HIV-1 elite controllers and if the role of p21 can be implicated in HIV-1 reduced susceptibility of infection and/or viral progression.

Q: How would you explain the broader significance of your research?
Lassiter: The clinical implication of my research is the development of a novel chemotherapeutic agent for the treatment of HIV-1 that would target a host protein, p21, which varies from conventional antiretroviral treatments that traditionally target viral pathways that include: fusion, entry, transcription, integration, and protease function. Also, HIV-1 genes undergo numerous spontaneous and therapeutic-induced mutations, thus a novel treatment targeting a host protein would unlikely undergo selective alteration and therefore make a viable candidate.

Q: What audiences are you addressing; what are some of the other books or scholars in your field; and how does your work compare with theirs?
Lassiter: The audience of our research is academic, professional, and clinical researchers. Currently, our research focus has not been investigated in the examination of the putative connection of elevated p21 levels and reduced HIV-1 susceptibility.

Q: Where do you see yourself professionally in five years?
Lassiter: My greatest aspiration is the role of a professor and student advocate. I was conferred the awesome opportunity of being an adjunct professor of disciplines relating to biological sciences after receiving my master's degree, and would love to continue my passion in the dissemination of scientific knowledge to undergraduate and graduate/professional students. I would like to hold faculty positions within both PWI institutions and HBCUs, as I am a product of both institutions and desire to be a model of female excellence in science serving as a role model for all.

Q: If you get more than one job offer, how will you decide between them?
Lassiter: Location will be the greatest deciding factor in career decisions. After relocating to the DMV area, I have vividly learned the importance of being thoroughly cognizant of the cost of living and traffic patterns to and from work. My peace of mind and health are priceless; therefore, location of the institution will guide my initial application choice and/or later decisions. Secondly, the percentage of time/effort in instruction and research are very important factors as my preference is academic instruction/mentorship during my earlier years and later becoming more engrossed with research and training.

Q: In what journals do you expect to publish your research?
Lassiter: I expect to publish my research in Retrovirology, the Journal of Virology or the Journal of Microbiology.

Q: How will you go about revising your dissertation for publication?
Lassiter: I attempt to write all of my literary work in a fashion that could be published immediately and/or would require minimal revision commitment. I have never been a fan of revisions, so I put intense effort in by research being journal-ready utilizing the general scientific writing format and generating figures according to publishing standards.

continue to Kasun Sameera Millawithanachchi interview

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