Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fellow collects data on drug-resistant mutants of hepatitis B virus to help reduce barriers to healthcare access Meet Sophia Sukkestad

Sophia Sukkestad

Sophia Sukkestad presented her research at the 7th annual CDC Laboratory Science Symposium in the Epidemiology and Outbreak Responses category and won for her poster presentation. (Photo Credit: Dr. Lilia Ganova-Raeva)

Growing up, Sophia Sukkestad could often be found at a wildlife refuge center after school. She and her marine biologist mother would make rounds caring for the ambassador animals there, sparking her passion for the natural world. Later in high school, Sukkestad realized she had a gift for calculus and decided to pursue industrial engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. However, the memories and passions she shared with her mom at an early age never seemed to go away, so she decided to change her major to biology. Quickly, Sukkestad became involved in a lab ran by Matthew Herron, Ph.D., where she explored the evolutionary origins of organismal complexity in Volvocine algae as an undergraduate research assistant. Sukkestad’s love for research grew working on her undergraduate thesis, solidifying her pursuit for a microbial research career. 

Later, while as an intern in the Malaria Branch with the Centers for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Sukkestad, met an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellow who recommended an opportunity for research experience in a federal lab. Sukkestad subsequently applied for and was accepted into the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention (NCHHSTP) research participant program with 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.

Sukkestad is part of the Virology and Assay Development Team in the Division of Viral Hepatitis Laboratory Branch of the CDC. When in the lab, she performs nucleic acid extractions, amplicon preparation for sequencing, fragment purity and concentration measurement and sequence read generation. After data collection, she works on proofreading and trimming the sequences to prepare for genotyping, phylogenetic analysis and mutation analysis. Ultimately, Sukkestad’s work helps generate phylogenetic trees to gauge genetic distance and genotype of the samples collected.

Sukkestad’s main project is characterizing drug-resistant mutants of hepatitis B virus (HBV) in a cohort of Tanzanian patients. The project looks at the healthcare infrastructure in Tanzania and the high transmission rates of HBV in the country. The high transmission rates have been linked to the lack of standardized methods of sterile practices and administration of modern HBV antiviral medication. Through the extraction of total nucleic acid from a set of 614 plasma samples and amplification of the HBV polymerase gene, Sukkestad and her team can examine treatment failure-associated mutations and treatment failures due to possible relevant amino acid substitutions.

“The purpose of my research is to advance epidemiological information on viral hepatitis genetic diversity and co-infections,” she said. “This is crucial for reducing barriers to healthcare access and informing better clinical intervention strategies for viral hepatitis infections.”

Earlier this year, Sukkestad co-authored a study titled, “Prevalence and determinants of hepatitis delta virus infection among HIV/hepatitis B-coinfected adults in care in the United States” published in the Journal of Viral Hepatitis. Additionally, she presented her phylogenetic and amino acid analysis of HBV isolates examined in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania at the 7th annual CDC Laboratory Science Symposium in January. She won in the Epidemiology and Outbreak Responses category for her poster presentation.

Throughout her fellowship, Sukkestad continues to have opportunities to gain new skills and experiences that allows her to grow as an independent scientist.

“In this experience, I’ve sharpened my ability to think critically about routine procedures and data interpretation by troubleshooting in the lab, reading literature, and crucially, wanting to know how and why procedures in place work the way they do,” she said.

Sukkestad highly recommends the ORISE fellowship opportunity as well as commending her mentor, Tonya Hayden, Ph.D., who is the Deputy Branch Chief of the Laboratory Branch in the Division of Viral Hepatitis. 

“All parts of the fellowship, I feel, foster the experience and development of skills needed to pursue a career in scientific research,” she said. “I’ve also always felt encouraged to ask questions, learn new skills and tackle new concepts. This support from my primary mentor, Hayden, and team lead, Ganova-Raeva, Ph.D., have been integral in cultivating confidence in my work and scientific capabilities.”

After her fellowship ends next year, Sukkestad wants to pursue a doctoral degree and revisit her love of evolutionary biology and wildlife ecology. She is interested in applying the strategies she learned at DVH to study the evolution of zoonotic pathogens during interspecies transmission events and adaptation to novel host species.

The CDC Research Participation Program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between CDC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.