Trainee Achievement: Heather Callaway

Heather Callaway has been fascinated by viruses ever since her high school biology class in Memphis, Tennessee. Now a PhD student in Dr. Colin Parrish’s laboratory, Callaway is making discoveries about canine parvovirus and is at the threshold of a promising career in research. Her talent and insights have earned her a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Canine parvovirus emerged as a new pathogen among dogs in Europe during 1976 and 1977, and went on to cause a global pandemic in 1978. Callaway says that a simple question about “parvo” is at the heart of her research: “What role does the parvovirus capsid, the protein shell that protects viral genetic material (DNA), play in infection?”

To find the answer to that question, Callaway has been making small changes in this capsid and tracking the effects those changes have on how well the virus can bind to and infect cells. If a mutation results in a virus that can no longer infect cells, this tells her that the part of the capsid that contains the change plays an important role during infection

“I’m trying to pin down the roles of those mutations to see what specific viral processes they interfere with,” says Callaway.

In 2014, Callaway was awarded a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship through a program intended to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States”. NSF first awarded the fellowships in 1952. More than 30 fellows have gone on to earn Nobel Prizes, and over 440 have earned membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

Together with Parrish, Callaway has written a manuscript about her work thus far that they hope to publish in late 2016, and she is aiming to graduate in the summer 2018. As that date approaches she’ll be carrying out more experiments and publishing more papers, working hard to lay the groundwork for a career in academic research.

“If we understand more about how viruses can infect cells, we can not only prevent disease, we can use viruses as tools for gene therapy, for cancer oncolysis (to kill cancer cells), genetic manipulation, and for other studies and therapies – the sky is the limit.”