After growing up in Blacksburg, Amber Abbott had an easy decision in choosing Virginia Tech science.

“I have been surrounded by the culture of Ut Prosim at my whole life and always knew I wanted to go to college here,” said Abbott, a senior and Honors College member majoring in microbiology in the Department of Biological Sciences and the recipient of the 2020 College of Science Outstanding Senior Award.

However, Abbott was not always as certain about her career path or interests when she began her first year. Her plans to major in microbiology solidified because of her research on herpes simplex viruses (HSV) with Andrea Bertke, an associate professor of infectious diseases in public health in the Department of Population Health Sciences, part of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

“Amber has been in my lab since the middle of her freshman year; she’s played on the quidditch team, in a band; held part-time jobs; received many, many awards; maintained a 4.0 GPA; and is currently ranked first in her graduating class,” said Bertke.

On top off all this, Abbott has published one paper as co-first author, is currently working on her second, and will have her name on at least three other papers by year's end. Abbott’s research projects focused on HSV in Alzheimer’s patients and in HSV latency and reactivation.

These projects earned her the 2019 Goldwater Scholarship and allowed her to present her research work at the 2020 Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference on campus, and become officially published. The conference was part of her Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, co-created by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and Virginia Tech Office of Undergraduate Research.

As Abbott’s passion for virology grew, she was able to see firsthand why her research was so important. She traveled with VT Engage in 2018 to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis facility in New York City and heard personal accounts from people living with HIV/AIDS and how new discoveries could impact them. She also spent time in the Dominican Republic in 2019, where she taught the underserved children of Munoz about infectious diseases and how to avoid and treat them. The trip was part of a winter-semester study abroad program with the Department of Population Health Sciences.

“Both experiences made it clear to me that the development of better methods of fighting infectious disease is essential, and they provided a more personal motive to my work at the bench,” Abbott said.

Amber Abbott works in a virology laboratory at the Integrated Life Sciences Building, one of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s research buildings located in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

Amber Abbott works in a virology laboratory at the Integrated Life Sciences Building, one of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s research buildings located in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. She is handling syringes and liquids that are part of her daily work.
Amber Abbott works in a virology laboratory at the Integrated Life Sciences Building, one of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s research buildings located in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. (Natalee Waters)

Not all of Abbott’s time at Virginia Tech was research and classwork. A music minor, she played in the Virginia Tech Percussion Ensemble for several semesters. As Bertke pointed out, Abbott also played quidditch, the rugby-like field game inspired by the Harry Potter book and film series that involves volleyballs and broomsticks. “It was an interesting experience and introduced me to the existence of a new, still-expanding, pretty intense sport,” Abbott said. “I was lucky enough to help the (Virginia Tech) team qualify for nationals for two years in a row."

Like most seniors, Abbott is experiencing an anticlimactic end to her undergraduate studies, due to the transition to online classes in the wake of COVID-19. However, she is looking forward to pursuing her Ph.D. in the Microbiology, Virology, and Parasitology Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in the fall.

It is possible that Abbott could become involved in researching coronaviruses during graduate school. “I think the impact of COVID-19 has begun to show people the importance of vaccine research, as well as the importance of listening to science and health care professionals,” she said.

Abbott hopes to be part of the solution. “Amber is already an amazing research scientist and I look forward to watching her progress through graduate school and beyond,” Bertke added.

Written by Emily Geist, a senior in the Department of Communication, part of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

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Fralin Fellow studies herpes simplex virus