What They Learned: Corinne Williams ’21

The mathematics and biology double major built tools to explore the effects of starvation on bacteria and infection.

Love food? So do bacteria! Corinne Williams ‘21, a double major, built tools that focus on bacteriophage, or viruses that infect bacteria. Combining the experimental procedures of biology and the analytical methods of mathematics, their projects would help test the effects of food stress on the rate of infection, a phenomenon called pseudolysogeny. The project doesn’t involve data collection, but it is an important starting point. “My thesis laid the groundwork,” said Williams, “and another student will be finishing the project next year! Once the system is complete, however, it can be used to explore pseudolysogenic behavior on a community level, with multiple bacterial populations, under distinct levels of food stress, all undergoing phage infection.” 

In their biology thesis, “Dynamics of pseudolysogeny in phage T4 when presented with differentially starved hosts,” they created a system that would test the effects of different levels of starvation pressure on different bacterial populations. Their mathematics thesis, “Modelling Bacteriophage Infection of Bacteria under Food Stress,” focused on adding pseudolysogenic behavior to existing models of bacteriophage infection. The mathematical models would allow simulations of pseudolysogenic systems that would be otherwise difficult to explore experimentally. Both theses are the first steps to understanding the behavior of malnourished bacteria. 

“Because natural environments are often nutrient poor–and thus bacteria are often starving–this phenomenon could potentially have significant implications on how we understand and model phage infectious dynamics in nature,” said Williams. 

Williams worked with mathematics advisor Rebecca Everett and biology advisor Eric Miller. They are very thankful for the endless support.

“At the beginning of the process, they both provided me a huge amount of structure and support: helping me fine-tune my research topic so that it would synergize well between biology and math, offering good first steps as I dipped my toes into research, and keeping me on the right track with deadlines and regular check ins,” they said. “By the end of the year however, once I had gained a sense of ownership over my projects, my advisors became someone to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with! I deeply appreciate all their guidance throughout the year, in helping me get my footing as a scientist!”

What did you learn from working on your thesis? 

One of the biggest things I gained through my theses was a sense of ownership over independent research. As someone who hopes to continue in research, it was very exciting to take on projects that I could fully claim as my own work! Doing two separate theses was definitely a significant amount of work–but also gave me an exciting and rewarding opportunity to have a research-intensive year!

What are your plans for the future and does your thesis have anything to do helping to guide your future career path?

After a gap year, I’m planning to apply to graduate school in mathematical biology! My thesis work this year has helped me get a taste of independent research, and has hopefully prepared me to hit the ground running in a graduate program!

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.