A 2020 Bethany College graduate is part of a team researching COVID-19 at the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Rebecca Lee, a Huntington, W.Va. native who graduated with a degree in chemistry, is a post-baccalaureate fellow at the NIA, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The opportunity for Lee’s fellowship came about through another Bethany alumnus, Dr. Robert Brosh ’85, who is a senior investigator in the Intramural Research Program at NIA.

Brosh’s team is researching the functional roles of an RNA helicase in the copying mechanism of the coronavirus implicated in COVID-19. Lee and Brosh will present a joint lecture titled “The Life Cycle of the Novel Coronavirus” at 11:30 a.m. March 9 as part of Bethany’s COVID-19 lecture series via Zoom and Facebook Live.

Lee began her NIA fellowship in October and has since spent considerable time working in the research lab located on the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus in Baltimore. The highly competitive fellowship also provides opportunities for Lee to attend seminars and meet with experts in the field of aging.

Lee finished her studies at Bethany in December 2019 and had planned to take a gap year before entering medical school, working as a substitute teacher and shadowing physicians to gain more experience. When the opportunity for the fellowship arose, however, her plans quickly changed.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Lee said. “I would be a fool to turn it down. My co-workers in the lab have been really helpful, and Dr. Brosh, he’s been a great mentor.”

The National Institute on Aging is one of 27 agencies within the National Institutes of Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the largest biomedical research agency in the world.

NIH’s mission is to acquire knowledge about living systems and apply that knowledge to enhance human health. With severe COVID-19 cases affecting older adults at higher rates, the research has a natural tie-in to the mission of NIA.

Research in Brosh’s lab involves Nsp13, a helicase encoded by the genome of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Nsp13 helicase is a protein enzyme that catalytically unwinds duplex RNA and is critical for replication and transcription of the coronavirus genome.

“Right now, our research is to really understand Nsp13 and how it functions,” Lee said.

The goal is ultimately to make important biomedical discoveries and publish the research in high-impact medical journals. The research in Brosh’s lab is providing mechanistic insight to key steps in the coronavirus life cycle and the development of anti-viral medicines through future experiments.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing, and it’s exciting,” Lee said, noting the short history of COVID-19. “Not a lot has been done. It’s kind of like a footrace for now.”

Lee said that Bethany provided her with a strong foundation in chemistry, but the regular lab work is its own type of education.
“I have learned so much,” she said. “It’s a whole different thing … this is a full-time job. I’m in the lab from 8 to 5 every day. With everything in lab work, it requires skill to do it. You have to be really precise and apply good techniques.”

With that in mind, the NIH places its recruited Post-baccalaureate Fellows on important projects with a focused number of state-of-the-art techniques, Brosh said.

“Becca was able to hit the ground running,” he said. “She learned very quickly. I was really impressed.”

Lee had an impressive resume while at Bethany. In addition to her major in chemistry, she completed a minor in art and competed on the varsity soccer team.

In 2019, Lee was one of 22 undergraduates chosen to participate in the WV-INBRE Summer Research Program at Marshall University, where she studied rat neonates exposed to opioids.

She also received Bethany’s Leonard Emory Yurko Award, which recognizes the top premedical student, and the Oreon E. Scott Award, which recognizes the student with the highest academic standing in each graduating class. Lee recently was accepted into the John C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University, where both of her parents studied.

“I think this training opportunity for Rebecca will really help to set her up professionally,” Brosh said. “I know she will excel in medical school. Her time spent training as a biomedical researcher will benefit her career as a physician because the analytical thinking will enhance her problem-solving skills.”

Like Lee, Brosh received his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Bethany. He also has a Master of Science in Biochemistry from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Genetics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He joined the National Institutes of Health as a Principal Investigator in 2000.

From Bethany College