Serving Society: Faculty Experts and Undergraduate Researchers
Fourth-year biology major Hans Verkerke began working in Dr. William Petri’s lab while still a student at Western Albemarle High School in nearby Crozet, where Verkerke knew the Petri family as neighbors. “I discovered that Dr. Petri was an eminent researcher here at U.Va., and I asked if I could start working in his lab,” Verkerke said.
He became part of the team helping Petri, the Wade Hampton Frost Professor of Medicine, study amebiasis, an intestinal infection that often affects children in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, the disease can reach 50 percent of the general population periodically and is estimated to cause more than 100,000 deaths per year.
Between high school and U.Va., at Petri’s suggestion, Verkerke spent four months in Bangladesh, studying amebiasis. In Bangladesh, Verkerke helped with a study showing that a mutation of a hormone receptor for leptin, which signals the brain when to stop eating, is associated with susceptibility to amebiasis. Much of his subsequent work in Petri’s lab has centered on exploring that link.
As part of an agreement with the School of Medicine, undergraduate biology students can engage in for-credit research projects with Medical School professors. As part of a team of undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, as well as faculty members, Verkerke has contributed to several published papers on the subject of diarrheal diseases in children in the developing world. He considers the lab work integral to his education.
“Some of the universal qualities of our undergraduates that Hans represents so well are a commitment to scholarship, exemplified by his now four-year commitment to his research project, a fascination with biology and understanding how things work,” said Dr. Petri.