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Distinguished 2014 Wesleyan Biology Alum to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research at Caltech

Dr. Zachery Lonergan, a 2014 summa cum laude biology graduate from West Virginia Wesleyan College, will soon begin cutting-edge research at the California Institute of Technology.  The Elkins native will receive his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at the end of this month from Vanderbilt University and begin his postdoctoral work in April.

Lonergan, who has authored ten publications since beginning his Ph.D., accepted the postdoctoral fellowship position with Dr. Dianne Newman at Caltech, who is a molecular microbiologist interested in the co-evolution of life and Earth.  Her research combines tools developed in the fields of microbiology and geochemistry to understand the ancient forms of metabolism.  Lonergan hopes to use his skills working with bacterial pathogens with Dr. Newman’s research program to better understand how bacterial metabolism promotes their success during infections.

The post-doctoral research is not the Elkins native’s first innovative research project.  At Vanderbilt, Lonergan focused on how bacteria that cause disease in humans are able to acquire nutrients during infections.  “I specifically worked with an opportunistic pathogen named Acinetobacter baumannii, which has become a really important public health threat due to high rates of antibiotic resistance,” said Lonergan.  “It’s become so important on a global scale that the World Health Organization has listed A. baumannii as its number one priority for the development of new antibiotics to treat the infections.”

Lonergan’s dissertation titled “Nutrient homeostasis in Acinetobacter baumannii,” details mechanisms that this bacterium uses to acquire nutrients, such as essential minerals, when A. baumannii finds itself in a harsh environment.  “I found several systems that are crucial for A. baumannii to acquire nutrients, and these systems have the potential to serve as new targets for antibiotic drug design,” he noted.

Lonergan was an outstanding student at Wesleyan and he says his educational experience at WVWC prepared him well for Vanderbilt and Caltech. “I am forever indebted to the faculty in Wesleyan’s Biology Department,” stated Lonergan.  “I am particularly grateful for Dr. Melanie Sal, who took a chance on me at the end of my freshman year by letting me work in her research lab for the duration of my time at Wesleyan. I was also lucky to have Dr. Jeanne Sullivan as my advisor; she constantly encouraged me to explore research options and take harder classes even if I was nervous I would not succeed. I also was able to take fantastic courses with Dr. Luke Huggins and Dr. Kathy Gregg. One of my favorite memories from my undergraduate experience was the field trip we took to Dolly Sods with Dr. Gregg.”

Lonergan also was active in Wesleyan’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE).  “As a Service Scholar, I was heavily involved in WE LEAD and the CCE,” he continued.  “I worked closely with LeeAnn Brown ’00, Katie Loudin ’07, and Jessica Vincent ’12, who led by example with their generosity and thoughtfulness in approaching dilemmas of our time and challenged me to always be my best self.  I was also was a member of Student Senate and was lucky to work with Julie Keehner, who provided a listening ear and graciously opened her home for lasagna nights more than I could count during my time at Wesleyan.”

“Outside of Wesleyan, I had exceptional research experiences at West Virginia University, where I worked with Dr. Laura Gibson and Dr. Jennifer Gallagher through the WV-INBRE and National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) programs,” Lonergan concluded. “Those experiences really fueled my desire to attend graduate school and provided a glimpse into what life as a graduate student would look like.”

Lonergan hopes to use is postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech to develop his own research program and interests that will ultimately help him establish an independent laboratory at a research-intensive university.

Lonergan is married to Brittany Johnk, a 2014 summa cum laude English literature and sociology graduate from Wesleyan.  She received her M.Ed. in community development and action from Vanderbilt University and is currently the Director of Data Strategy and Analytics at Valor Collegiate Academies.

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