Rebecca Rudicell

Rebecca Rudicell ’05 has what some might consider a dirty job, or at least an unappealing one. Her work, however, is proving vital in helping to advance the understanding of simian immunodeficiency virus in chimpanzees (SIVcpz).

Rudicell has spent the past three years studying SIVcpz from chimp feces collected off the forest floor in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. Yes, that’s the place where Jane Goodall began her groundbreaking study of chimpanzee behavior half a century ago.

Using hundreds of specimens collected by trackers between 2000 and 2008, Rudicell is a co-author of the first study to show that SIVcpz – the primate form of HIV that crossed the species barrier sometime within the past 100 years – kills chimps early. Because researchers previously thought SIVcpz was harmless in chimpanzees, the study reporting that the virus appears to be pathogenic is considered to be a stunning scientific finding.

Rudicell, a graduate student in the microbiology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, works in the lab of Beatrice Hahn, M.D., one of the pioneers of HIV research. She is funded by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) program called Med into Grad, which encourages graduate students to work in areas that will have clinical impact.

“It’s been really exciting to be a part of such interesting work,” Rudicell wrote in an e-mail message to Warren Wilson professors Vicki Collins, Dean Kahl and John Brock, mentors when she was a student majoring in both chemistry and biology. “We hope insights into this virus will help us understand HIV better.”

Not surprisingly, the research by Rudicell and colleagues is receiving widespread attention. She is one of the co-authors of a journal article presenting the finding in Nature, the highly respected international weekly journal of science. Both Science News and Science magazines wrote about her presentation of the SIVcpz finding at 16th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Montreal. General-interest publications have taken note as well, including The New York Times in a lead article titled, “Study Finds Chimps Die From Simian AIDS, Dispelling Widely Held Belief.”

Although Rudicell isn’t yet sure which direction her career will take, for now she plans to continue her work on the distribution of SIVcpz in chimps. As Dr. Hahn was quoted in an HHMI, “I handed the torch to Rebecca about a year ago, so now she is in charge of the study.” Rudicell also hopes to complete a thesis studying the virological contributions to SIVcpz pathogenicity within the next few years.

“I’m very grateful for the education I received at WWC,” Rudicell wrote in the email. And, she noted, “I think fondly of the chemistry lounge and the friendly environment.”