One of this year’s recipients of the Plumeri Award for Faculty Excellence is biology’s Mark Forsyth. The Plumeri Award acknowledges those faculty exhibiting passion, vision, and leadership in their teaching, research and service to the College. Mark is all that, and then some! In his time at W&M, he has earned distinction with three teaching awards (the Grace Blank Teaching Award, the Alumni Association Teaching Award, and the Thomas Jefferson Award for Teaching). His primary teaching obligation is Microbiology (BIOL306) and its associated lab. He also teaches a senior seminar each year, and has collaborated with Margaret Saha and Kurt Williamson in Biology and J.C. Poutsma in Chemistry to develop a number of lab courses involving bacteriophages and genomics and proteomics.
Mark’s research lab has been funded since 2003 by the National Allergy and Infectious Diseases Division of the National Institute of Health (NIH). Support for student research in the lab has been derived from NIH and also from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Science Grant to the College. Mark and his students (~15 annually) are interested in how bacteria adapt to changing environments, both at the single cell level and at the population level. They use the stomach pathogen Helicobacter pylori as their model system. Sensory transduction pathways in the bacterium are examined to determine how gene expression by the bacterium changes in response to environmental signals. They also study how H. pylori uses mutational hotspots in specific genes to generate variant subpopulations in the stomach so that changing stomach conditions, such as inflammation and immune response, don't extirpate the bacterium. This is a key feature that can explain in part how H. pylori can become a life-long infection of the host stomach.
When asked to describe the neatest finding in his lab, Mark—in character—described not what he found, but what his students found. “I could go for some really recent stuff involving the artificial changes made in promoter regions of an H. pylori gene and the resulting gene expression changes, but…Beth Mole (2003) and Shannon McNulty (2004) in our lab found a genetic sequence in some strains in the lab that were much more frequently associated with H. pylori strains from Africa than elsewhere in the world. They then designed a nice double-blind study to look at this unusual sequence among African-Americans and found that most African-Americans possess H. pylori strains that are more closely related to strains still existing in Africa than strains anywhere else in the world. It really helped demonstrate the point that this bacterium is passed on predominantly among families.”
Mark clearly loves working with students and loves to use exclamation points when writing about them. “Students in the lab vary only in their interest level and determination! They are all bright and so I give as many as I can a chance to engage in research (but I have to turn away many, many more than I can accept!). It is only those who are most interested or become most interested and determined that thrive long-term in the lab. The others may have different priorities and they learn from their time in the lab, too, but I enjoy all of them. Many of them would have been my best friends had we gone to college together as contemporaries! But it's not simply their intellects and work ethics that impress me, it is their sense of community and inclusion that I find especially touching. Many of these young people really go the extra mile to help their communities, on campus and even in other countries. I love the sense of service and compassion I feel when I'm among these people!” What student wouldn’t want to work in Mark’s lab?!?
Mark has a research leave upcoming, with plans to continue collaborative research with colleagues at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He’ll be splitting time between Vandy and W&M—he can’t stay away from the students in his lab for too long. Maybe on research leave he’ll have a chance to re-visit his first scientific love—birding—and add a few more species names to his life list. Congrats to Mark for now adding “Plumeri Award” to his list of accomplishments!