Skyler Cochrane, 2018 Matriculant

Skyler Cochrane, 2018 Matriculant

Skyler CochraneSkyler always had a knack for science and knew she wanted to become a chemist since high school. From ninth through twelfth grade she was part of the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, where budding scientists attend personalized classes, lectures, intern in labs, and build their research projects. During her time in this program, Skyler spent a year in Dr. Craig Lindsley’s lab where she synthesized novel inhibitors of MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), and for her project, she partnered with a fellow student to date human skeletal remains by using luminol to calculate the decline in a bone’s blood level. Their work was noteworthy enough, that it was presented to and published by the Tennessee Jr. Academy of Sciences. After high school, Skyler attended Rhodes College, where she received four years of lab experience, giving her a total of five before she applied to graduate school.

As a PhD student, Skyler thought she would continue her synthesis research. But after some self-reflection, decided joining the biochemistry department would build her skills to become a better medicinal chemist and an all-around better scientist. She chose to do research in Dr. Pei Zhou’s lab, where she’ll get a solid grounding in biology and chemistry, allowing her to bridge the gap between the two disciplines. 

Dr. Zhou’s lab focuses heavily on the study of Gram-negative bacteria, which make up the vast majority of priority resistant pathogens, and they utilize biochemical and biophysical approaches, such as NMR, X-ray crystallography, and enzymology. Of particular interest, is the essential biosynthetic pathway of lipid A, a major component of the outer membrane of the unique cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria. In the absence of lipid A, a majority of Gram-negative bacteria cells die, making this pathway an excellent target for new antibiotic treatments.

While Skyler spends most of her time in lab developing and testing novel inhibitors of one particular enzyme in this pathway, LpxH, recently she’s undertaken a new project as well. In collaboration with Dr. Amanda Hargrove, Skyler is investigating how to improve permeation of antibiotics across the double membrane of highly infectious, gram-negative bacteria. The Hargrove lab provides RNA compounds from their extensive library, which are then combined with commercial or experimental antibiotics, then tested in vitro against various strains of bacteria. Her study is looking for a combinational drug treatment that can not only reduce the necessary medication dosage but repurpose Gram-positive antibiotics for use against Gram-negative infections. So far, within the first year and a half in the Zhou lab and in collaboration with Dr. Jiyong Hong’s lab, Skyler has co-authored a published paper and has two more in various stages of submission. By the end of 2020, she hopes to have three or four papers to her name.

Skyler wants her antibiotic research to impact people’s lives—much of modern medicine wouldn’t exist without these life-saving drugs that not only kill common bacterial infections but decrease the risk of infection during most medical procedures like surgery and chemotherapy. We are in a race against the rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria, and Skyler’s research brings us one step closer to protecting those most in need—find a cure for some of the 2.8 million drug-resistant infections that occur yearly and preventing some of the 35,000 premature deaths.*

*Statistics are from the CDC’s 2019 antibiotic resistance report.