COSAM News Articles 2023 July COSAM graduate student Emily Churchman is first at Auburn University to be awarded a prestigious USDA NIFA predoctoral fellowship

COSAM graduate student Emily Churchman is first at Auburn University to be awarded a prestigious USDA NIFA predoctoral fellowship

Published: 07/11/2023

By: Maria Gebhardt

Emily Churchman, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM), is the first graduate student at Auburn University to receive a $180,000 predoctoral fellowship from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Emily’s research focuses on microbiology and immunology in the context of fish health.

The award is for a research a project titled Evaluation of a recombinant Flavobacterium covae vaccine in conjunction with a dietary probiotic in channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). The project has the potential to be a direct economic impact on the catfish industry in preventing columnaris disease and potential animal losses due to disease outbreaks.

“This research provides a better approach to prevention,” said Churchman. “Using vaccines and probiotics can help catfish farms keep their fish safe and reduce unnecessary losses in their stock.”

Churchman is a PhD student in the research group of COSAM’s Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies Mark Liles.

“I am thrilled that Emily has received this well-deserved grant to develop her PhD research at the intersection of microbiology and immunology”, said Mark Liles. “It was surprising to learn that this was the first USDA predoctoral fellowship at AU, and I hope this encourages many others to follow Emily’s example.”

The project is in collaboration with the USDA-ARS Aquatic Animal Health Research Unit in Auburn. Miles Lange is a research microbiologist with the USDA-ARS who serves as Emily’s co-Major Advisor.   

Lange is evaluating different recombinant proteins that will be tested as individual vaccines and a combined vaccine to prevent the catfish from being infected with Flavobacterium covae.

“It’s not practical to give fish vaccines by injecting them,” said Churchman. “We are therefore testing the most efficient methods whether it is a bath immersion or through oral delivery on coated fish feed.”

After the fish are vaccinated, Churchman continues to contribute to the research through analyzing the immune response and checking the antibody production in the serum and on the skin levels of the fish.

“I am proud that a graduate student from the Department of Biological Sciences is the first ever at Auburn University to receive this prestigious USDA NIFA predoctoral fellowship,” said Paul Cobine, chair of the department. “Emily is an excellent student who is doing important research on a topic that has a huge economic impact in our state.”

The funding will be used for both research and professional development. Churchman is seeking a career in academia after graduation.

“I am passionate about helping students become the scientist that they want to be,” said Churchman. “I have had the opportunity to mentor two undergraduate students and watching them grow and develop is fulfilling.”

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