Having successfully defended his thesis and graduated, Dr. McMenamin is now a postdoctoral researcher at the USDA-ARS Honey bee breeding, genetics, and physiology lab in Baton Rouge, and funded by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) through an interagency agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the USDA. His publications include describing the role of heat shock proteins in antiviral defense in honey bees, and provides a target for potential antiviral treatments or breeding programs(1). We had a chance to catch up with him about his experience as a PAm-Costco Scholar, and working with the beekeeping community.
Images - Left: Dr. McMenamin in the Flenniken lab at Montana State University injecting bees with a virus to test them for antiviral gene expression. Right: Holding a pile of newly emerged bees that will be sorted into cages [for a study].
"…there is a lot more to uncover about how bees are fighting infections and, therefore, a lot of tools in our toolbox to protect colonies that we haven't even begun to identify yet…"
How did you hear about the Project Apis m. and PAm-Costco Scholarship program? What inspired you to apply?
I heard about the PAm-Costco scholars program through my PhD advisor, Dr. Michelle Flenniken. What I love about PAm is their commitment to funding research and innovation that promises deliverables to beekeepers. But, they're also not afraid to go out on a limb a bit with more basic research which promises deliverables on a bit more distant horizon. Funding through PAm was instrumental in shaping my research goals which are ultimately to bridge a gap between basic and applied honey bee research so that we can rationally develop therapeutics that benefit bees and beekeepers in a process more akin to development of human therapeutics. In other words, combining basic research which forms the foundation for understanding how a bee's immune system works (and how we can engage it safely) with applied research which addresses practical questions of deliverability and efficacy in colonies
What's the coolest thing you learned while working towards your degree?
This is maybe the hardest question on this list. I first fell in love with beekeeping and then with bee research and I feel like every time I crack open a hive or step into the lab I learn something new about bees. But, I think the coolest thing I learned was that bees have unique antiviral immune systems compared to more studied organisms like flies or mosquitos or moths. This means there is a lot more to uncover about how bees are fighting infections and, therefore, a lot of tools in our toolbox to protect colonies that we haven't even begun to identify yet. The possibilities are exciting.
How did the funding impact your experience in graduate school?
In some ways the funding ultimately shaped my career path forward from the moment I got the award. It gave me clear direction in terms of which questions I wanted to answer but it also started to shape my thinking. I also have an inkling that getting this award was an important detail that made me a better candidate for the position I currently have with the USDA where I have a very real opportunity to do both basic research and produce deliverables for beekeepers and, as I mentioned above, bridge the gap between those two parts. Partly, because PAm is such a highly regarded organization so their support was seen as a vote of confidence in my work. But, also, getting the funding allowed me to specifically develop my own research program answering my own questions and carve out my own research niche. The funding from PAm also allowed me to publish two research articles (one on stress response proteins involved in the antiviral response and one on developing new cell culture techniques in honey bees) from my PhD which made me a more competitive applicant to get the job that I wanted after graduate school.
Lastly, having the funding from PAm gave me guaranteed funding for the last two years of my PhD which gave me ample time to very neatly wrap up my doctoral work without feeling rushed so that I could fully focus on my postdoc here in Baton Rouge with time to decompress in between both chapters of my life.
How have you shared your work with beekeepers? What has their response been?
I have shared my work with beekeepers, though it has been a few years as the pandemic disrupted opportunities to meet with people. The response has been surprisingly positive. There is often a moment when I am talking to beekeepers about heat shock proteins or cell culture methods where you can see the gears turning in their head as they're waiting for me to say why I am doing any of that. Some often come right out and ask "But, why?" But, they all very immediately understand when I tell them I want to give them tools to fight virus infection. Beekeepers are very aware that viruses threaten their colonies and that they currently have no way to combat them. When I explain that by zooming in on cells and molecules to understand how bees are already fighting virus infection will allow us to devise ways to give bees a helping hand they almost always immediately understand and become excited about the work.
Do you see any big changes coming in beekeeping, research, or agriculture?
It would be crazy to not see big changes! But I have already alluded to one big one a few times: the capacity to rationally develop therapeutics for bees and beekeepers by constructing a pipeline from the test tube to the hive. The goal for my research going forward is to develop techniques that allow screening of large amounts of potential therapeutics that are first chosen based on a fine-scale understanding of honey bee immune systems. It might look something like this:
1. Test a panel of dozens of potential therapeutics in honey bee cells that are growing in a dish.
2. Narrow that panel down based on those experiments to one dozen therapeutics and test them in more standard cage studies. In these cage studies, newly emerged bees are sorted into cages (perhaps 50 bees per cage) and exposed to different treatments. For example, virus or virus and a potential therapeutic.
3. Based on cage studies, the panel is now further narrowed down to just a handful of potential therapeutics which might be further tested in larger cage studies or transitioned into testing in a mini-colony or nano colony setting. PAm funded some great work by [PAm-Costco Scholar winner] Zachary Lamas who has been developing nano colony assays that will be huge for this kind of research.
4. And, finally, after going through all the right pipelines, promising therapeutics can be tested in hives!
We congratulate Dr. McMenamin on his success, and hard work on bee health. Beekeepers and researchers can follow along with Alex by following him on twitter @Almellifera.
1) McMenamin, A.J.; Daughenbaugh, K.F.; Flenniken, M.L. The Heat Shock Response in the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is Antiviral. Viruses 2020, 12, 245. https://doi.org/10.3390/v12020245