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BHS grad takes shot at curing viruses

Cristina Craig probably won’t be able to save the world if there’s a zombie apocalypse — she’ll be hiding — but most other infectious diseases won’t stand a fighting chance against this up-and-coming medical researcher.

“I’m actually real scared of zombies. You’ll find me underground somewhere, far away,” she said.

Craig, 19, of Brookhaven, was part of an elite group of 33 students in the state who participated in biomedical research as part of an internship through Mississippi IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence’s research scholars program. The Ole Brook grad is a sophomore at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, where she is a biology major with a microbiology emphasis and Spanish minor.

“I’m intending on going into a dual degree M.D./Ph.D. program and specializing in infectious disease or neuroscience,” she said. “It has been a dream of mine to be a part of something bigger than myself, to truly make an impact. My passions can have that dual purpose.”

Her parents, Jim and Celine Craig, are in the medical field and some of that could have rubbed off on their fourth born of the five Craig children. Jim Craig is director of health protection at the Mississippi State Department of Health in Jackson. Celine Craig is director of human resources at King’s Daughters Medical Center.

Craig was drawn to research when she read “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story,” a non-fiction account of the Ebola virus, in her freshman biology class at BHS.

“I wanted to be one of those people working with Ebola. I was thinking that was the coolest thing in the world,” she said. “There’s always up-and-coming viruses. Viruses is my personal interest.”

The Mississippi INBRE Research Scholars program provides students with real-world, hands-on research experiences. Students engage in cutting-edge research in some aspect of biomedicine and, thereby, become a part of the world-wide enterprise to discover and disseminate new knowledge.

Co-Lin sophomore Sydney Jackson also participated in the program at Southern Miss. They spent the first week of their internship at USM learning laboratory basics and safety techniques. During this time, they were also able to hear from professionals about graduate programs, resume and interviewing tips, and presenting at professional conferences.

After completing this training week, Craig and Jackson began working with mentors at USM to complete the remaining 10 weeks of their internship. Craig spent her summer in the lab of Dr. Fengwei Bai and Jackson worked in Dr. Hao Xu’s lab.

Craig interned with Bai from May 21 to July 27 and, through her work with him, made the decision that she was on the right career path.

“I worked on growing various insect-specific flaviviruses as a foundational piece to the research I will continue at Southern Mississippi for a Zika vaccine candidate,” she said. “I also had to find the concentrations of those viruses using lab techniques I learned during our one-week training period.”

She plans to continue her work with Bai at Southern Miss for her junior and senior years, then get accepted into the medical program at University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“I believe the Mississippi INBRE program is good for anyone with any kind of interest in in-depth biology/studies of life because you learn the mechanics of all of those micro life forms, and you get to play those mechanisms in the lab,” she said. “This internship changed my entire life. I changed my major from nursing to biology. I changed from UMMC to USM so I can continue my research on Zika. I also decided to continue education to UMMC after with the M.D./Ph.D. program.”

Craig was also recently chosen as a Phi Theta Kappa’s 2018 Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholar. She’ll receive a $1,000 scholarship for that honor.

“From my understanding, the Coca-Cola scholarship finds potential in students with the potential to be great leaders,” she said. “I want more than anything to give back to my community here in Brookhaven, in Mississippi, and in the wellness of the world in general. I think maybe the Coca-Cola foundation saw that, and they wanted to support that initiative. I will use the scholarship for various expenses at school.”