In a leader's footsteps Researcher: The first winner of an award the Johns Hopkins University created in honor of slain graduate student Alicia Showalter Reynolds is Laura Rusche.

April 10, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Alicia Showalter Reynolds enjoyed her research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine -- work that she hoped might one day help prevent a tropical parasitic disease.

Yet the fourth-year graduate student treasured just as much the prospect of inspiring others to follow her. She wanted, she told friends, to teach women about science.

At 25, Reynolds disappeared while driving from Baltimore to Charlottesville, Va., on a Saturday morning to go shopping with her mother. Nearly a year after her body was found, the crime remains unsolved. Today, the Hopkins medical school plans to honor Reynolds' intentions by conferring an award in her name on Hopkins graduate student Laura Rusche.

Researching parasite

Rusche, a 27-year-old from Flagstaff, Ariz., recently received her doctorate in molecular biology. She is studying the parasite that causes sleeping sickness in sub-Saharan Africa.

"These parasitic diseases very often afflict countries that are less well-off," Rusche said yesterday. "I hoped that [the research] would turn into something that would help people."

Of Reynolds, who was a friend, Rusche said, "I know that was why she did research. She wanted to do that."

The new annual award carries a $1,000 prize. Hopkins also paid for airfare for Rusche to return from Botswana for today's Young Investigators Day ceremony, which will include the awarding of several prizes to other graduate students.

Rusche's work on trypanosomes, parasites transferred from tsetse flies to humans and other mammals, involves an attempt to pinpoint how the organism's genetic information is used to enable its cells to grow. That process is called ribonucleic acid (RNA) editing.

Halting a parasite

She has isolated the proteins that direct RNA editing and has shown that a surprisingly small number of them exist.

This discovery could help scientists uncover a way to prevent the parasite from being transmitted from its host to other animals, said biological chemistry Professor Barbara Sollner-Webb, who is Rusche's adviser.

Sleeping sickness afflicts tens of thousands of Africans each year. Symptoms include fever, tremors, headaches, lethargy and convulsions that can lead to death.

Hopkins officials said it was the strength of Rusche's research that earned her the prize, that her friendship with Reynolds was a grace note.

"Laura and Alicia were very similar in many ways: both very serious, hard-working, very good students," Sollner-Webb said. "It's very fitting that Laura would win this prize. She very well epitomizes all of the good of researchers and graduate students."

Wanted to be role model

Friends and family members interviewed in the wake of Reynolds' disappearance spoke of her intense desire to serve as a role model for women. She was even thinking of trying to teach at her alma mater, Goshen College in Indiana, because of the inspiration several women professors had provided.

Reynolds, a fourth-year student in pharmacology, focused on schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease that affects an estimated 250 million children in Latin America and other tropical countries. The ailment, often contracted from freshwater snails while swimming or bathing, causes bleeding and scarring in the bladder or intestine.

On March 2, 1996, Reynolds disappeared while driving to meet her mother and purchase a dress for her brother's wedding. State and federal law enforcement officials believe a man posing as a good Samaritan flagged her down outside the historic town of Culpeper, Va., and persuaded her something had gone wrong with her car.

Her body was found near cleared logging trails two months later, 12 miles east of Culpeper. Because they have not found Reynolds' killer and consider the case open, police officials limited their comments on the case.

"They're still investigating," said Lucy Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police. "We've had more than 7,000 leads, and hundreds of people checked out and cleared. They continue to work on a daily basis.

"We're still optimistic," Caldwell said. "We still get calls almost every day."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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