DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A war-ravaged childhood in her native Sierra Leone did not deter Martha Lewis, an undergraduate student at LIU Brooklyn, from reaching for her dreams.
Overcoming trauma and displacement, the biology major is scaling the heights in her chosen field: She has been selected by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) to present her research on a specific strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria at the group’s annual meeting in San Diego this April.
“This is amazing,” Lewis, 26, of East New York, said of the prestigious honor. “It means my efforts have not gone in vain, and it gives me motivation for me to continue.”
The ASBMB meeting is the largest experimental biology conference in the nation, with more than 15,000 attendees, according to Anthony L. DePass, assistant vice president for research development at LIU Brooklyn.
“This is a tremendous honor for our student, as thousands of abstracts are submitted for this meeting and very few are selected,” he said.
DePass directs LIU Brooklyn’s Minority Biomedical Research Support-Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (MBRS/RISE) program, which promotes minority participation in the sciences. Lewis is one of eight scholars in the program.
Under the mentorship of biology professor Dong Kwon, Lewis has focused her research on the pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium which can cause severe infections, especially in immune-compromised patients, in hospitals and other health care settings.
“In my research, I looked at ways to trick the bacterium so that it would not be so drug-resistant,” Lewis said.
Working with Kwon, Lewis learned that using a particular compound called polyamine lowered the level of antibiotic required to kill the bacteria.
“My goal is to understand the molecular details of the polyamine effect and how that can provide the basis for designing a new therapeutic strategy to treating these types of infections,” she said.
Lewis hopes to become both a physician and a scientist. It is a dream that was heavily influenced by growing up during the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. When she was 10, she witnessed the destruction of her village by roaming gangs.
“I saw so many people die in the civil war, amputations and blood,” she recalled. “I asked myself how I could help and I wanted to dedicate my life to medicine.”
She, her twin sister and several members of her family were able to flee the carnage.
“We escaped by sneaking out at night, walking 36 hours to safety,” she said. The family made its way to relatives in Germany, where they needed to adapt to a radically different culture and overcome a language barrier. Despite these challenges, she learned German, adapted and thrived.
Along with her twin sister, Lewis came to the United States in 2005. After earning an associate degree from a private college in Queens, Lewis transferred to LIU Brooklyn.
Lewis, who expects to graduate in May 2013, is a member of Alpha Sigma Lambda National Honor Society and the Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society. She is on LIU Brooklyn’s Dean’s and Trustees’ lists.
“I see myself working as a doctor, as well as doing research in cell and molecular biology in regards to pathogenic diseases,” Lewis said. “It is a long and challenging goal that I have set for myself. I know that I can handle it because if I can survive a civil war, I can do anything.”