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Meet a Participant: Myla Worthington

Myla Worthington

As a National Nuclear Security Administration Minority Serving Institutions Internship Program (NNSA-MSIIP) participant, Myla Worthington, optimized a rapid test for a parasitic infection and reviewed literature on neurotoxins. (Photo Credit: Dr. Frank Denaro, Morgan State University)

Myla Worthington began her journey into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) early by testing into advanced placement education in second grade. She spent hours watching “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and knew that she wanted to be a scientist, too.

“I decided I wanted to become a scientist to not only solve problems related to diseases but to also show other little girls that someone like them belongs in those spaces as well,” said Worthington.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Elizabeth City State University for biology pre-medicine and biology, respectively. Today, Worthington’s efforts are focused on receiving her doctoral degree in bioenvironmental sciences from Morgan State University, researching HIV-1 associated neurological disorders and vision loss.

After learning about the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) through Morgan State University, she applied for and became a National Nuclear Security Administration Minority Serving Institutions Internship Program (NNSA-MSIIP) participant. Worthington interned in the Biotechnology and Bioengineering department at Sandia National Laboratories under the mentorship of Dr. Robert Meagher and Dr. Taylor Moehling.

NNSA-MSIIP provides paid opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students at Minority Serving Institutions pursuing degrees in critical science, engineering, technology, mathematics, and other disciplines that support the current and future missions of NNSA.

Worthington’s first project with Sandia was to optimize a loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) assay for Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi). T. cruzi is a parasite that causes Chagas disease via contact with excrement from infected triatomine bugs and can be fatal if undiagnosed and untreated. The LAMP method is a faster and simpler alternative to gold-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

“Samples without T. cruzi remain pink while positive samples turn yellow as amplification occurs,” explained Worthington. “As the summer progressed, we experimentally determined the assay’s specificity and sensitivity.”

Worthington presented the Chagas research at Sandia National Laboratories Intern Symposium and the results are now being prepared for publication. This colorimetric LAMP assay could be compatible with portable platforms. She hopes that the study will make diagnosis of Chagas disease easier, particularly in remote parts of the globe where there are limited resources and access to lab testing.

She also conducted a literature review on neurotoxins, which are toxic substances that can disrupt or kill nerve cells. Worthington compiled a large amount of data on the subject to inform a future project focused on improving neurotoxin detection. This research is still ongoing.

At Sandia, Worthington’s day usually started by preparing protocols in her notebook before she moved to the lab. Independent research allowed her to develop confidence as a scientist, though she reached out to a mentor if questions arose. After running her assay experiments, Worthington analyzed results and created summary reports and presentations for her mentors. She finished her day by preparing protocols for the next day of research.

She has gained skills in experimental design and says that this skill is integral to becoming an independent scientist. However, her favorite part was learning from her mentors. For example, she learned primer design from Dr. Meagher and efficient experimental planning from Dr. Moehling.

Worthington recommends the NNSA-MSIIP program.

“I’d like to encourage everyone eligible to consider applying for the NNSA-MSIIP program,” said Worthington. “This has been a life-changing experience. I have learned so much and was able to have hands-on experiences at a national laboratory. I’d like to send a special thank you to ORISE, NNSA-MSIIP, and my research mentors for affording me this opportunity.”

Today, Worthington is completing her doctoral degree and finding her niche in the postdoctoral world, where she can begin her career as a government researcher.

The NNSA-MSIIP Program is funded by NNSA and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.