After completing a Ph.D. in Translational Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University, Stephen Maurakis is on his way to achieving his goal of becoming a senior scientist focused on fighting serious pathogens.
By LaTina Emerson
Stephen Maurakis became interested in biomedical sciences at a young age, and after working in a lab in college, he discovered that a career as a research scientist was a perfect fit.
The native of Danville, Va., is the first in his family to earn a doctor’s degree. For his Ph.D. in Translational Biomedical Sciences, he completed a dissertation on the bacterial pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae, contributing to efforts to develop a vaccine against gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted infection that is a global threat to public health. After graduating from Georgia State this fall, he wants to continue working with other bacterial pathogens.
He decided to pursue a Ph.D. to improve his long-term career outlook. He’s now doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health, where he’s working in a lab focused on the structural biology of membrane proteins and biophysics. This training will add to the microbiology skills that he developed during graduate school.
“After that, I see myself as a senior-level scientist leading a group that characterizes vaccine and drug targets for high-priority pathogens,” he said.
Maurakis earned his bachelor’s degree in microbiology and immunology from Virginia Tech and worked in industry as a lab technician for two years before getting his master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University.
He planned on enrolling in a Ph.D. program at Virginia Commonwealth University, but when his research mentor, Cynthia Nau Cornelissen, was recruited to Georgia State, he decided to move to Atlanta and enter the Translational Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences. He wanted to keep working with Cornelissen and was interested in her research area.
“I liked the idea that the translational program here could give us exposure to some of the business, legal and regulatory aspects of biomedical research, which wasn’t really possible in the [VCU] program,” Maurakis said. “I think there’s a lot of flexibility for each student to maximize their Ph.D. journey in a way that’s well suited to them. In the end, I think the decision was pretty easy.”
Cornelissen’s lab focuses on Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacterial pathogen that causes gonorrhea, which affects more than 80 million people each year and has become a global threat because of increasing antibiotic resistance. Her lab is characterizing a certain group of structures on the outer surface of the bacterial cell that allow it to obtain nutrients during infection.
Maurakis worked with one of the structures for both his master’s and Ph.D. and learned quite a bit. He helped demonstrate how the structure is regulated, discovered its nutritional target within the human host and identified which parts of the structure allow it to recognize that target and acquire nutrients from it.
“I worked alongside many of our collaborators to evaluate whether this structure is a good target for a drug or vaccine to combat the infection,” Maurakis said. “Overall, that’s our goal. We’re working toward ways to treat or, ideally, prevent gonorrhea, because at the moment our options are severely limited.”
Maurakis is the first author of four scientific publications, and has co-authored several other papers. In addition to learning new techniques and working with a challenging organism, he was interested in this research because of the possible impact on human health.
“There’s an obvious, tangible outcome that I might get to witness one day,” Maurakis said. “It’s possible that our work will directly contribute to a gonorrhea vaccine in the future, which would have an immense impact on global health. I think I’d feel very rewarded to know I was able to contribute to something like that.”
In addition to research, the Translational Biomedical Sciences program exposed him to professionals with other types of biomedical industry experience, such as entrepreneurs, consultants and legal experts. Students can tailor the program to suit their individual goals, and these additional resources position them for success by giving their skill set more breadth, he said.
He feels fortunate to have Cornelissen as his research mentor because she gave him the freedom to work through problems, explore his own ideas and make mistakes.
“I’ve learned and grown a lot with her supporting me along the way,” Maurakis said. “She’s a very collaborative investigator, so our group is working alongside experts from many disciplines. I’ve been fortunate to network with all of them, which has certainly played a large part in helping me through my research and figuring out what I’d like to do afterwards.”