Vatsan Raman Earns NSF CAREER Award

Photo of Vatsan RamanVatsan Raman, Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, has earned a 2023 NSF CAREER Award. The award recognizes early-career faculty who are building a strong foundation to integrate education and research.

“The NSF CAREER Award is an endorsement by the scientific community,” says Raman, who is also a professor in the Department of Bacteriology, as well as an affiliated professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “It’s an opportunity to develop cool, cutting-edge science that is integrated with education and outreach. This integration makes the NSF CAREER award quite unique.”

The $1.3 million award will support the Raman Lab’s work with bacteriophages — viruses that infect bacteria.

“Bacteriophages are perhaps one of the longest evolutionary experiments on Earth,” says Raman. “The bacteriophages are constantly trying to find new ways into the bacteria and the bacteria are constantly trying to evade infection. They’re in an arms race, evolving genetic strategies to outdo each other.”

This arms race may offer key insights into combating bacterial infections that are difficult to treat with current therapeutic methods. By identifying and replicating strategies that bacteriophages have developed to successfully invade host bacteria and survive, Raman hopes to produce phages that target specific bacteria, such as pathogenic bacteria associated with human diseases. Such phage therapies could treat bacterial infections without using antibiotics that often affect the human body’s entire ecosystem of bacteria.

“The first step is to figure out how the bacteriophage gets into the bacteria and completes its lifecycle without being shut down by the host,” explains Raman. “Then, we have to identify obstacles that bacteria have developed to protect themselves from bacteriophage infection, and use synthetic biology strategies to engineer bacteriophages that can counteract the obstacles.”

Raman and his team of researchers are investigating how genetic mutations in both bacteriophages and host bacteria influence their interactions with each other. From there, they hope to identify and engineer phages that will effectively attack and kill target bacteria. This means examining millions of mutations to determine which ones have the potential to be therapeutically significant — essentially, looking for needles in a haystack.

With such large-scale datasets it is unfeasible for the Raman Lab to singlehandedly produce detailed measurements on each potentially beneficial mutation, which can number in the hundreds.

So, the Raman Lab has partnered with two undergraduate microbiology laboratory classes, integrating support for and from the lab classes into his research. For Raman, incorporating ambitious research goals into educational opportunities is an essential and exciting element of the CAREER Award.

“It is like symbiosis; both we and the students benefit from it,” says Raman. “We pick out the mutants of interest for undergraduate students to use as learning tools. We’re not handing off something we don’t care about. The students categorize detailed measurements, and we’ll learn a lot from their results.” The students, in turn, use the mutants and the Raman Lab’s protocol to learn lab techniques and actively participate in biochemical research.

Bacteriophage models used by members of the Raman Lab for outreach purposes. Photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS.

In addition to their collaboration with undergraduate classes, the Raman Lab is developing hands-on tools for grade-school educators to give lessons on bacteriophages. The educational tools, including 3-D printed models of bacteriophages and water-filled balloons to represent bacteria, were piloted at this year’s Wisconsin Science Expeditions. Three graduate students from the Raman Lab gave hands-on demonstrations to get a first look at how kids responded to the materials.

“The kids loved it,” Raman says. And he’s looking forward to seeing how these educational collaborations develop and grow.

“We see the excitement around these projects,” says Raman. “Outreach and education are such important parts of the CAREER Award, and now we can build on these ideas and opportunities.”

Written by Renata Solan.