February 13, 2017 10:00:05 AM
Isabelle Altman - [email protected]
Mississippi State University senior biology major Lucas Ferguson just got a free ride to study the evolution of viruses at the University of Cambridge in England.
The Batesville native is one of only 36 Americans -- and the first ever MSU student -- to receive a Gates Cambridge scholarship, which pays students' full tuition for masters programs at one of the world's oldest and most premier universities. For Ferguson, that means researching for a year in the heart of the "Silicon Valley" of bio-technical research analyzing and experimenting with strains of RNA viruses.
"I basically have the opportunity to affiliate with some of the greatest minds in the world, as well as with some of the most cutting-edge bio-technologies," he said.
The scholarship pays for full tuition plus some other school-related expenses. At the end of Ferguson's year at Cambridge, he'll have a master of philosophy in biology.
How he started
Ferguson, grandson of William Bost Sr. for whom the Bost Extension Center at MSU is named, took his first crack at scientific research when he was a senior at the Columbus-based Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science where he participated in the school's Research Shadowing Program at MSU.
Though called a "shadowing program," participants must conduct actual research, said program coordinator and MSMS chemistry teacher Lib Morgan.
"Students select a topic they're interested in, or even a few mentors they would be interested in working with, and then the Office of Research at MSU and I work to get them matched with mentors," Morgan said.
The students -- usually about 15-20 per year -- go to MSU twice a week for about three hours and do research with their mentors in fields from chemistry to computer science to even anthropology, Morgan said.
For Ferguson, that meant researching topics like bovine-influenza D virus, pathology and epidemiology at MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine under Lab Director and Associate Professor Xiu-Feng (Henry) Wan.
"I was learning techniques and kind of getting a feel how research is undertaken, from working through data and looking at all the different results we get, how to grow viruses ... and also some necessary background, how to be a careful scientist," Ferguson said. "You're working with influenza viruses, so of course there's biosecurity. It's a big part of my training, being biologically safe when I'm working."
Wan has worked with several students from MSMS through the high school's research project over the years, and Ferguson impressed him quickly.
"I was very impressed (with) Lucas' passion and curiosity about science, which are two of the keys to success in scientific research," Wan said.
Ferguson impressed Wan enough that they kept doing research together throughout Ferguson's MSU career. He spent his first semester at MSU as a technician, earlier than most undergraduates. By the time he was a senior, he had already dabbled in graduate-level research.
Getting to Cambridge
With Wan's help and with a handful of credentials in publications and collaborations at MSU, Ferguson began applying for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship last October. He was accepted at Cambridge at the end of last semester. He landed an interview in January and learned he got the scholarship earlier this month.
"I was very proud of him," Wan said.
Ferguson said he is ecstatic to attend Cambridge to further research the evolution of viruses --particularly important in the field of medicine and drug design. From his previous research, he's familiar with the influenza virus, whose structure changes every year, meaning scientists must develop a new type of vaccine annually.
Studying virus evolution also helps scientists track the origins of viruses like HIV, Ferguson said. He compared it to archaeology.
"They're digging through old samples in different parts of Africa," Ferguson said. "It's a really neat story how they track HIV's evolution and where it came from. ... They've been able to see, 'Oh, this strain existed here and here and here' and 'This strain popped up at this location.'"
Looking at the genomes of those early strains might help researchers develop a vaccine or some other type of treatment one day, Ferguson said -- though he said stressed that will only be one part of finding treatment, which will take ultimately take multiple scientists across multiple disciplines.
What will be good for Ferguson at Cambridge will be taking those field analyses and experimenting with them in the lab.
"Basically being able to take that (analysis) and move it into experimental hypothesis," Ferguson said. "That's going to be really foundational for my career."