Undergraduate research opens door to opportunity

“I’m the first in my entire family to even think about a master’s or Ph.D. And, for me to go to Johns Hopkins? This is a Portuguese kid from Bristol, Rhode Island!”

Josh Leitao
B.S., biology; B.A. chemistry
Minor, public health; certificate, biotechnology
Roger Williams University

weareriepscor-2For many students selected as Rhode Island EPSCoR’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURFs), the 10-week program offers a novel, firsthand experience in full-time research.

The intention is to give undergraduates selected for the program a taste of the scientist life, working on an open-ended project without the burden of academic responsibilities.

For Josh Leitao, the opportunity was like being that kid in the candy store. He worked in the lab of faculty mentor RWU Associate Professor Avelina Espinosa, on the project “Using Entamoeba to explore the effects of climate change in marine and fresh water protists.”

“It was the first time I could dedicate my entire summer to research,” he says, grinning at the memory. “I was always in the lab. It was awesome. I got to learn so many techniques.”

Since then, Leitao’s undergraduate research in the Espinosa lab has focused on Entamoeba, harmful intestinal parasites, seeking to better understand the structure of a family of enzymes, alcohol dehydrogenases (ADHE), and the role it plays in the growth and survival of the these amoeba species.

Visualization of dye after 36 hours
One aspect of understanding the effects of climate change on these parasites is to understand the behaviors, which are affected by stressful environmental conditions, that allow them to become infectious. This fluorescent micrograph from Josh Leitao’s RI EPSCoR research demonstrates the clustering of like cells within a control experiment of the same Entamoeba terrapinae species, resulting in the visualization of yellow dye after 36 hours of incubation. (Photo by Josh Leitao)

The 21-year-old Bristol, RI, native says he knew early on that he wanted to pursue science, in general, and biotech, in particular. In high school, he enrolled in the Mt. Hope biotech academy, which required participation in science fairs. As a sophomore, he carried out what he describes as a small project on tobacco and earned second place.

His senior year, determined to take first, Leitao recalls, “I did an awesome project on treating celiac disease, isolating proteins from fungi that naturally grow on bread. It wasn’t too elaborate, but it was a pretty good project for a high school senior.”

He won best of fair and went onto win the Rhode Island state science fair along with a slate of other awards. Leitao found his calling and enrolled at RWU, selecting the institution for its biotechnology program and affordability. He has lived at home all four years, taking advantage of the campus shuttle since he does not have a car. He also is employed as a work-study student on campus and a pharmacy tech at CVS.

In his four years in Espinosa’s lab, Leitao says he has worked on many projects and trained more than 11 undergraduates following in his footsteps. He also picked up additional research experience in the lab of RWU Assistant Professor Erica Oduaran.

Leitao earned an American Society for Microbiology (ASM) undergraduate research fellowship (one of 12 undergrads in the nation to receive the award) and will present his research in June at the ASM Microbe 2016 conference in Boston. In April, he presented his research in San Diego at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) and has been inducted into the ASBMB honor society for substantial research and academic performance. He helped create the campus chapter at RWU and served as president for the past two years.

ASM research poster
Newly graduated from Roger Williams University, Josh Leitao will present his research at the ASM Microbe 2016 conference in Boston next month.

Leitao celebrated his graduation from RWU on May 14 with summa cum laude and as a President’s Core Values Medallion recipient. Next he heads to John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he will pursue a master’s in molecular microbiology and immunology (MMI).

A first generation college student (his mother finished high school and is a medical technician at a nursing home; his father dropped out of school after the sixth grade), Leitao appreciates the magnitude of his accomplishments: “I’m the first in my entire family to even think about a master’s or Ph.D. And, for me to go to Johns Hopkins? This is a Portuguese kid from Bristol, Rhode Island!”

He attributes his success to his mother’s high expectations and insistence that he do well in high school. He also points to her work ethic, at one time taking on four jobs to support him and his two sisters, as instrumental in his independence and driven nature.

Leitao says he is excited to head to Johns Hopkins: “I love public health! Any science that aims to help humans is my type of science.”

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle