From Issue Winter 2020

A Vision for Better Health

By: Reagan Poston

A Vision for Better Health

Urita Agana working in Dr. Jonas King's laboratory on research to address disease transmissions by mosquitos and bedbugs. (Photo by David Ammon)

EDUCATION BROUGHT URITA AGANA, a senior biochemistry major originally from the upper-East region of Ghana, across the world. She was 16 when she saw her father walk across the stage at Humphrey Coliseum with his doctorate in plant and soil sciences. She knew nothing about research, save for the astounding impact it could have on the communities of Ghana.

"I grew up seeing my friends get sick and not knowing why. The idea that I could help doctors understand and maybe even play a role in establishing treatment, that's what made me want to be a part of research," Agana said.

It was education that brought Agana to Mississippi State, and then education brought her dreams of being a researcher to fruition. During Agana's junior year, she was offered the opportunity to build the foundations of her research knowledge with Dr. Sorina Popescu, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, by studying taproot decline in soybeans.

Though it wasn't her goal of human health, Agana saw the position as a chance to broaden her horizons while cementing the procedural and technical knowledge that lab time ensures.

"A huge part of why I chose Mississippi State was for the hands-on experiences. My first research opportunity wasn't exactly aligned with my interest, but it was an invaluable experience. Everything I learned in Dr. Popescu's lab has translated into my current research, and I know that it will carry on into my professional research," Agana said.

In Popescu's lab, Agana was aiding in the effort to fight taproot decline in soybeans. The researchers were in the process of establishing a method of biocontrol over the fungus Xylaria, which has been devastating soybean producers across the Southeast. Agana's role involved a great deal of preparatory work before the experiments themselves, including sterilizing soybean seeds, sorting them, and transfusing plants from the grow-labs into the greenhouses. Agana shared that doing this hands-on work made her feel confident in her decision to pursue research.

Soon, an opportunity to shift her research focus to human health presented itself, and Agana began working under Dr. Jonas King, an assistant professor in the biochemistry, molecular biology, entomology and plant pathology department, whose research addresses diseases transmitted by arthropods-specifically mosquitoes and bedbugs-and the interactions these pathogens have with the host. Agana's role in the research focuses on mosquitoes and the transmission of malaria.

"Working with Dr. King has been an incredible experience," Agana said. "I do a lot of DNA extraction, and I've been able to assist on polymerase chain reactions, which makes the DNA easier to study, and soon I'll be studying the way antibodies react with cells. Really, everything about the work fits into my interest in human health. Not to mention the fact that we're working to fight malaria, which is directly related to my career goals."

With much of sub-Saharan Africa suffering from high levels of malaria infection, Agana has plans to one day return to Ghana and make a difference in her community.

"I want to go to graduate school, maybe even earn a Ph.D., but my dream is to be able to go back to Ghana and help with the healthcare system back home. My measure of being a successful researcher will be how much I've given back to my country, and I believe one of the best ways to do that is to educate people about their health, especially the young people, who are going to grow up and take over the reins of changing the world," Agana said.

This research was funded by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station's Undergraduate Research Scholars Program.