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School of Medicine discoveries

April 5, 2017

Microbiology alumna seeks Zika answers

The Zika virus topped the list of Google’s trending health-related questions in the U.S. in 2016, according to CNN. People wanted to know “What are the symptoms of Zika?” and “How long does Zika last?”

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10, studies if Zika can be transmitted through air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

As warm weather nears, questions remain about the Zika virus. Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10, takes on the epidemic the best way she knows how — in the research lab, where she’s studying if Zika can be transmitted through air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Jean Kim, PhD’10 (MICR), had questions about Zika, too. She went to the research lab for answers.

Now the principal investigator on a Zika project for RTI International, where she works as a research microbiologist, Kim is asking “Can Zika be transmitted through the air via coughing or sneezing?”

The Zika virus is known to be transmitted via an Aedes aegypti mosquito that bites an infected person and then transfers the virus to another person via its salivary glands. A pregnant woman also can pass the virus to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly, a severe birth defect where babies are born with abnormally small heads due to underlying brain damage. Sexual intercourse also has been identified as a route for transmitting the virus.

“Yet little research has been done on the possibility that the Zika virus could be spread through other secondary routes including aerosol transmission,” says Kim, whose research typically centers on indoor air quality, including the impact of black mold on human health. “We wanted to be proactive about providing solutions to the Zika situation. How could we address this public health issue?”

After presenting a concept to the company CEO in spring 2016, Kim and her colleagues immediately began their research: studying if Zika can survive in human respiratory, oral and salivary environments, whether the cells from the oral and respiratory tract allow for propagation and how long the virus can persist in saliva.

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10

Research microbiologist Jean Kim, PhD’10

By January 2017, Kim finished her initial research and submitted results to a research journal. While she can’t disclose outcomes until after publication, she emphasized the importance of wanting to complete the research in a quick timeframe.

“Zika isn’t going away,” Kim says. “We’ve just been in a lull because of the winter season and not seeing any mosquitoes. Even babies who might not display microcephaly are still experiencing other effects. We still have a lot to learn about the pathology of the virus and the impact it has on infants.”

Research teams in labs all over the country are investigating different aspects of the Zika virus. Kim and her colleagues also are interested in investigating if a heel prick can detect Zika in infants at birth to determine whether they may have been exposed in utero.

Her natural curiosity for what causes disease is what ultimately led her to study microbiology and immunology. “I’m extremely interested in how something so small can be so successful at survival. How can it cause disease and withstand all of the challenges that it faces when inside a host?”

A multiple degree alumna from VCU, Kim also received her master’s in biology from the College of Humanities & Sciences. She points to a bacterial pathogenesis course team-taught by Cynthia Cornelissen, Ph.D., and Richard Marconi, Ph.D., both professors in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, that led her to pursue her doctorate.

“There is no more gratifying feeling than to know you may have played a part in stimulating a student to pursue an occupation that I consider to be among the most rewarding,” Marconi says. “The ability to pursue your own ideas and do something new every single day is remarkable.”

Kim now enjoys motivating today’s students, recently welcoming a group of VCU basic science students to Research Triangle Park to discuss non-academic career opportunities for Ph.D. candidates.

“In academics, you ask very deep and probing questions, and become an expert in one area,” she says. “Here at RTI, I take a much broader view. Research is not as probing, but it’s far-reaching. One of the things I enjoy is taking basic science research and seeing how it can be applied and used elsewhere … thinking outside the box.”

Or in the case of Zika research, thinking outside the Google search box.

By Polly Roberts