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3 OSU students win Otto S. Cox Graduate Fellowships

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Media Contact: Harrison Hill | Senior Research Communications Specialist | 405-744-5827 |

At Oklahoma State University, the Otto S. Cox Graduate Fellowship for Genetic Research helps students stand out in the corresponding field.

Stephen Koty, doctoral candidate in biochemistry and molecular biology

Students earn the annual fellowship by showcasing proven records of genetic inquiry and the potential to impact the discipline in the future.

“OSU genetics research continues to grow in both breadth and depth, supporting our priorities in One Health and production agriculture,” said Dr. Kenneth Sewell, OSU’s vice president for research. “The Cox Fellowship for Genetics Research is an important part of that growth.”

This year had a highly competitive application pool with three OSU students — Stephen Kotey, Huishan Liu and Jesna Varghese —earning a fellowship. The award will provide a $1,000 stipend and recognition for pursuing challenging work in a rapidly evolving and critical research area.

Past recipients of the Cox Fellowship have gone on to study phenomena as diverse as the neurochemistry of the link between childhood adversity and addiction to the degradation of fish habitats, Sewell said. Other alumni of this fellowship are continuing to pursue advanced degrees or have established laboratories at universities, government agencies or in the pharmaceutical industry.

“Clearly, the Cox Fellowship is having its intended positive impact,” he said. With tuberculosis being the second leading cause of death by an infectious pathogen after COVID-19, Kotey’s research is focused on targeting important genetic elements in host immune cells, known as long non-coding RNAs as a therapeutic regimen in the treatment of mycobacterial infections, including tuberculosis.

“It is a great privilege to be part of the story of humanity’s fight against them,” Kotey said. “The search for a potent treatment regimen for these infectious diseases has been in the works for over 150 years. The importance of this work grants me a fulfillment that makes me cherish every bit of the research I do.

Jesna Varghese, doctoral candidate in microbiology and molecular genetics

“Also, this work comes with the honor of mentoring and training undergraduates and young scientists.”

Varghese’s work is also related to antibiotic alternatives. 

“The opportunistic human pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa produces intra-specific killing complexes known as pyocins that have the potential to specifically kill P. aeruginosa as a therapeutic alternative to antibiotics,” Varghese said.

Varghese is studying the molecularmechanistic of the regulation of an alternative pathway for pyocin expression in cells that was discovered by fellow researchers in the Cabeen Lab.

“We are trying to achieve a molecular-mechanistic understanding of the regulation of the alternative pyocin production pathway,” Varghese said.

Varghese developed an interest in therapeutics and drug discovery while pursuing their master’s degree.

“The project I am working on now completely aligns to my interest,” Varghese said. “In this day and age of antibiotic resistance succumbing the world, I feel it is really important to study alternative ways of treating bacterial infections. The area of my research is very exciting to me, and I hope to make an influence in the scientific community in the future.”

Liu’s work in the lab is on the forefront of research helping to reduce the synthetic fertilizer pollution by engineering a mutually beneficial relationship between host plants and nitrogen fixing bacteria.

Huishan Liu, doctoral student in biochemistry

Liu’s research focuses on how plants recognize beta-glucans produced by bacteria and fungi and which receptors are required for beta-glucans activated plant immunity and symbiosis in legume Medicago truncatula — a widely used model plant for studying plant symbiosis.

“Beta-glucans are important microbe-associated molecular patterns for innate immunity to defense against pathogen infection in both mammals and plants,” Liu said. “Interestingly, we discovered that beta-glucans can also activate plant symbiotic signaling pathway, which are essential for establishing a mutualistic relationship between plant roots and symbiotic microorganisms.”

By identifying the plant pattern recognition receptors involved in betaglucans perception, people can better understand the communication between hosts and microbes.

“I am truly honored to be recognized by the Cox fellowship this year, it boosts my confidence in scientific research and motivates me to pursue further explorations in the future,” Liu said.

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