Wesleyan Biology and Softball Alumna Rebekah Honce Researching Infectious Diseases

West Virginia Wesleyan College alumna, Rebekah Honce, has always been always been fascinated by the natural world.  The Bridgeport native and 2016 WVWC grad is pursuing her Ph.D. in the Integrated Program in Biomedical Sciences in the Immunology and Biochemistry track. She is conducting her research in the Department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude Children’s Hospital under the guidance of Dr. Stacey Schultz-Cherry in Memphis. 

Honce’s passion for science was fostered by her family.  “My parents, siblings, and family friends on Brushy Fork and Green Valley instilled a strong sense of connection to the natural world as I grew up in Appalachia. My mom was a registered nurse for nearly 40 years and my dad nurtured a love of nature and animals in me while helping me explore the woods around our home,” she noted. “He founded a successful construction business and that type of hands-on work appealed to me.”

“For my seventh birthday, my brother gave me a cheap plastic microscope—probably actually bought by my mom,” she continued.  “I was thrilled and immediately began making my first rudimentary slides of pond water, lightening bug wings, and cat and dog hair. I think I even cut some of my own hair off to look at it!  This unseen world that exists all around us has always fascinated me, and I still make slides for microscopy to look at the microscopic world—just with slightly better tools now.”

After graduating from Bridgeport High School, Honce enrolled at Wesleyan to pursue a major in biology and another passion common to her family—softball.  She was a four-year starter and helped lead Wesleyan to conference championships, tournament championships, and NCAA Atlantic Regional titles. “Being a student-athlete demands sacrifice, dedication, resilience, and time management,” said Honce.  “One of my biggest mentors, and to this day, biggest cheerleaders, is Coach Steve Warner.  The mental toughness he strives to instill in all his player does not end when you hang up your cleats.”

“Science has a lot of parallels to softball,” added Honce, who was an All-Mountain East, All-Atlantic Region, and third team Academic All-American.  “There are lots of failed experiments, unfunded grants, and rejected papers.  But you must keep moving forward and put the “bad science days” behind you and move onto the discoveries you could make the next day—just like shaking an error off and moving to the next pitch.  And honestly, the consequences of having a bad science day are a lot less scary than the consequences of popping up a bunt after Coach gave the sacrifice bunt sign.”

The magna cum laude Wesleyan graduate is conducting research in Dr. Stacey Schultz-Cherry’s laboratory at St. Jude. Dr. Schultz-Cherry is a prominent researcher in the field of host-viral infections and the laboratory she fronts focuses on how pathogens cause disease in high-risk hosts, highlighted by her position as a leading children’s cancer hospital.  “In joining the laboratory, I began investigating the interactions between obesity and influenza virus infection,” she remarked.  “My home state of West Virginia, just like Appalachia and the southeastern United States, is ranked as having one of the highest rates of childhood and adult obesity.  My doctoral work aims to understand how obesity weakens the body’s fight against viral infections and how the behavior and composition of viral pathogens is altered in an obese host. My love for Appalachia as well as my passion for microbiology led me to the easy choice of pursuing this research question.”

“I study viruses,” Honce stated.  “Specifically, my research focus is on influenza, which is a tricky virus to understand.  The “flu” we try to avoid during the winter months is commonly caused by two distinct viral species: FluA and FluB. However, there are many strains that comprise each of these species; you probably have heard of H1N1, H3N2 or even H5N1. In addition to the myriad of flu strains, flu is also really good at changing how it “looks” to our body. Sometimes flu strains change so much that our previous immunity built up through infections or vaccines become outdated and ineffective, leaving us vulnerable to infection and disease.  Also, there are many flu species and strains that circulate in animals—birds, seals, horses, even your neighborhood dogs and cats—many of which pose a threat to human health.  Virologists and epidemiologists study the mechanisms behind the evolutionary patterns that emerge in animal health to hopefully stay one step ahead of influenza and prevent pandemics.”

“There are countless other viruses always circulating in animals that cause little to no disease in them. Bats are a fascinating example of this! However, sometimes these viruses can “spillover” from the animal host and have serious consequences for human health.  We have seen this with avian influenza viruses, Ebolavirus, and currently are watching it unfold with SARS-CoV2 and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Honce has been the lead author on several papers and most recently, “Obesity-Related Microenvironment Promotes Emergence of Virulent Influenza Virus Strains” was published in the journal mBio by the American Society for Microbiology.  The research team’s work in Dr. Schultz-Cherry’s lab has also been featured in USA Today.

She is currently writing her dissertation and plans to pursue a post-doctoral position after receiving her Ph.D. Her long-term goal is to continue researching the intersection of host-pathogen interactions, disease ecology, and viral evolution to understand how viruses circulate in animal reservoirs and why they do or do not make the “jump” to infect humans. She has a strong desire to mentor and teach future researchers and hopes to be a voice for underrepresented groups in STEM—especially women in science.

Honce says Wesleyan prepared her well for her Ph.D. pursuits.  “Wesleyan provided all the things I needed to excel in science,” she noted.  “The depth of education I received as a biology major easily prepared me for the exams my first two years of graduate school.  The emphasis the Biology Department placed on clear and concise writing was greatly beneficial. My main scientific mentors were my advisor, Dr. Melanie Sal, and Dr. Luke Huggins.  Both helped me realize my love of research and helped me prepare to be a competitive candidate for graduate school.  Dr. Sal’s microbiology and immunology classes were the reason I pursued research in virology and viral immunology.  Other Wesleyan professors made impacts that influenced me both academically and personally.  Dr. Jeanne Sullivan helped spark a love of molecular evolution which inspired my love of viral evolution, the late Dr. William Mahoney taught me to write quality essays quickly—an indispensable skill in graduate school—and Dr. Debra Dean Murphy helped me better understand my faith.”

Honce is quite happy with her where she landed for her graduate work.  “Being a student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and conducting research at St. Jude Children’s Hospital really provides the best of both worlds,” she concluded.  “I have access to the wide range of resources of the UT system as well as the concentrated scientific resources at the St. Jude campus.  Working for Stacey provides great opportunities to really be at the cutting edge of influenza pathogenesis.  She leads two NIH-funded centers and our lab is a great place to be a graduate student.  The mentoring and support from Stacey, staff scientists, technicians, post-docs, and fellow graduate students in the lab help me succeed in my work and we have a lot of fun, too.”

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