Charles Thurlow credits his grandfather for his interest in science. “My grandfather was a professor, and he helped introduce me to scientific research at a very young age that has captivated me ever since,“ said Thurlow, current fellow in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD), and Tuberculosis (TB) Prevention (NCHHSTP) Research Participation Program.
With a desire to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, Thurlow decided to pursue a B.S. and Ph.D. in microbiology at Auburn University, the very same university where his grandfather conducted his research throughout his career. It was during his time at Auburn that he became interested in and applied to a post-doctoral fellowship sponsored by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) and CDC.
“I had heard great things about ORISE and the post-doctoral fellowship opportunities they provide for research conducted at CDC,” he said. “I identified a fellowship opportunity through ORISE that would allow me to gain research experience under the mentorship of one of CDC’s syphilis experts, Dr. Allan Pillay. This became a perfect opportunity for me to focus on bacterial genomics and diagnostic research at the CDC.”
The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.
Under the mentorship of Dr. Pillay, lead scientist for the Molecular Surveillance of Treponema pallidum (T. pallidum) Unit within CDC’s Division of STD Prevention (DSTDP), Thurlow focused his research on developing a method for generating whole genome sequencing (WGS) data for the causative agent of syphilis, the bacterial pathogen T. pallidum, directly from clinical specimens. WGS is a laboratory procedure that determines the order of bases in the DNA sequence of an organism’s genome.
Having joined Dr. Pillay’s lab in the early stage of this research, there was no protocol for WGS data of T. pallidum at the CDC. The goal of Thurlow’s fellowship was to assist in developing a method for producing WGS data directly from clinical samples because T. pallidum is difficult to culture in the laboratory.
“One can think of this as providing the data for an ever-growing familial tree of syphilis, like what an individual sees when looking through their ancestral tree, with branches and nodes representative of the genetic variability in strains within a given population,” Thurlow said.
With the rate of syphilis in the United States (U.S.) the highest it has been since 2001 and increasing, having access to T. pallidum genomic data could enhance our understanding of the international epidemiology and diagnostic capability of syphilis, and the ability to obtain data that could aid in the development of a syphilis vaccine.
Thurlow’s research conducted during his CDC fellowship led to producing the first T. pallidum WGS data generated at the CDC, along with the first WGS data directly from syphilis clinical specimens at the CDC. “The manuscript describing this method is currently in the review stage, and I hope to publish it as a first author soon,” he said. “I have presented this work both internally at CDC’s 2019 Advanced Molecular Detection Two-Day Meeting and externally at the 2020 STD Prevention Conference. I was also able to present at a speed talk for CDC’s 2019 Laboratory Symposium.”
During his fellowship, Thurlow also had the opportunity to be involved as a co-author on a separate manuscript describing a novel technique for the rabbit propagation of T. pallidum from cryopreserved clinical specimens, published in PLoS ONE in January 2020.
While advancing his knowledge in clinical research and developing his skills in genomics and diagnostics, Thurlow has taken the initiative throughout his fellowship to advance his scientific career and further hone his abilities as a scientific researcher. He recommended the CDC NCHHSTP Program to other young scientists looking for a similar research experience at the CDC.
“ORISE has many opportunities for those looking for careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field, as well as health communications, policy and evaluation fields,” he said. “I would recommend the CDC for young scientists looking for fellowship opportunities in public health research.”
Thurlow hopes to further develop his skills by continuing his research at CDC when his appointment ends and expressed his gratitude for his fellowship experience with CDC and ORISE, saying, “I am grateful to the opportunity the Oak Ridge Institute and the CDC’s DSTDP have given me. The success I have experienced during this fellowship would not have been possible without the support of my loving wife, Cassie, my generous family and the happiness and warmth my three dogs bring to my life.”
The program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE focuses on scientific initiatives including educating the next generation of scientists and is managed for DOE by ORAU.