Merissa Bruns
Merissa Bruns

Merissa Michelle Bruns, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an emphasis in microbiology, molecular biology and biotech, and a minor in chemistry from Eastern New Mexico University in 2015, is working on a Ph.D. in Biophysics at the University of Denver.

She recently had an article, titled "A Quantitative Live-Cell Superresolution Imaging Framework for Measuring the Mobility of Single Molecules at Sites of Virus Assembly," published in Pathogens.

The Greyhound Grad discusses her research and her Eastern Experience.

merissa bruns with dr varela
Merissa and Dr. Varela at her first research conference at ENMU in 2013.

Tell us about your research.

HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS, goes through a lifecycle within the human cell to replicate itself. Near the end of that lifecycle, when HIV assembles itself to form new virus particles inside of the human host cell, it has entered the stage of assembly. My research focuses on tracking HIV-1 Env and Gag proteins, two separate viral proteins required for virus assembly. I investigate HIV viral assembly using various forms of live cell super-resolution microscopy and distinct fluorescent microscopy techniques.

My paper on HIV assembly uses two fluorescently labeled probes or markers to label the two major HIV-1 assembly proteins at the sites of viral assembly. One probe is an HIV antibody fragment, known as BG18, against the gp120 region of Env. BG18 is my pride and joy, as I am found to be the first to microbially recombinantly reproduce and purify this potent, broadly neutralizing antibody fragment that was proven very successful in labeling HIV-1 during assembly. The second probe is a fluorescent nanobody directed against the structural protein, Gag, in a different color than Env.

Using a permissive T-cell line, HIV-1 infection is then introduced, and these newly developed probes were used to measure sites of HIV viral assembly using total internal reflection microscopy (TIRF). This allows for further vaccine and treatment-based research, as assembly is the only stage in the lifecycle that no treatment currently exists for.

What did it mean to you to have your paper published?

Having my paper published was overwhelming joy, happiness and accomplishment. A publication brings the highest forms of pride and reward as we have now successfully contributed a piece of information and powerful tools to the community after 40 years of the ongoing AIDS pandemic.

How did ENMU prepare you for your current research projects?

ENMU provided me with confidence in my abilities to explore and perform research. The days and nights spent in Dr. Manuel Varela's lab at Roosevelt Hall on campus provided me with an excellent taste per se for what research in graduate school would be like.

merissa bruns lab
Merissa, center, in Dr. Schuyler Van Engelenburg's lab in 2019.

Why did you choose to attend ENMU?

As a first-generation college student on a journey to find a quality education at the right price, transferring from the University of Colorado in Boulder to Eastern New Mexico University was the best decision I could have made for my academic and financial future. Not only did ENMU's small class sizes, well-educated and friendly professors and the student success-driven atmosphere stick out to me--the cost of tuition did as well. With tuition costing me 60 percent less, available grants for research opportunities and a beautifully remodeled Science Building to study in, I knew I was in the right place.

How did you choose your field of study?

I always had a strong drive and curiosity towards the field of medicine, and I've always felt that my passion consists of unlocking my potential to impact human life in a way that is truly unique, powerful and satisfactory. The idea of a novel discovery made by me and knowing this could impact millions of lives globally is the incomparable joy and satisfaction that has led me in the direction of medical-based research.

Bacterial and viral species alike are everywhere around the world and thriving in their environments. Due to their nature, they will continuously evolve and forever find ways to survive humans, always demanding a challenge. A lifelong challenge I have willingly and gratefully accepted.

Which activities were you involved in at ENMU?

One of the most rewarding jobs I had on campus at ENMU was as a tutor. Helping others achieve their success was always fulfilling to me, and some of the students I tutored have become friends for a lifetime.

On top of tutoring, I received a S.T.E.M Grant that allowed me to get paid for undergraduate research, where I really began uncovering my passions and talents studying antibiotic resistance in the causative agent of cholera with Dr. Varela.

With the financial assistance of the S.T.E.M Grant and the Colorado Scholar Tuition Waiver, I was supported and able to achieve success at ENMU. I remained on the dean's list for the entirety of my three years at ENMU and graduated Cum Laude.

merissa bruns with authors
(L-R) Corresponding authors of Merissa's most recent publication: Nick Groves, Merissa Bruns and Dr. Schuyler Van Engelenburg.

Discuss your Eastern Experience.

As a transfer student, I didn't have my freshman experience in the dorms at Eastern but still had the full college experience upon my arrival. Eastern had it all for me to experience. I was very career-oriented at ENMU and spent most of my time focused on academics. I was very impressed with the undergraduate research program I participated in, as it built the strong foundation I stand on today.

As far as my favorite professors and classes, I think he already knows it, but Dr. Varela takes the gold here. From Microbiology to Virology, Dr. Varela always knew how to keep my passion ignited, my excitement high and my curiosity exponentially growing. As a researcher in his laboratory, I felt highly respected and appreciated, which allowed my ideas to flourish and my skills to grow.

Tell us about your job.

I am currently a graduate research assistant (GRA) at the University of Denver. My job is to continue to support my principal investigator (PI) in his ongoing HIV-1 Env focused research project. I use biochemistry techniques to produce antibody fragments, virologic techniques to infect human tissue culture cell lines, chemistry techniques to produce the right conditions for production and physics for coding and analytical techniques of HIV-1 single particle tracking. My job duties are simply to collect data, analyze it and report it. I also get the occasional fun task of training and mentoring an undergraduate student in the laboratory as well, which always takes me back to my days at ENMU when I was an undergrad. 

What are your short- and long-term career goals?

My short-term career goals are always changing as I continue to accomplish more and acquire new skills. Currently, I am hoping to jump into the current COVID-19 pandemic workforce shortly after graduation. Epidemiology positions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta are hot on my radar right now. My long-term goal is a little bit cliché, but it's simply to find work that is fulfilling and impactful on a large scale. Becoming an expert of the microbes and viruses alike is the first step of this long-term goal.

Share some of your previous jobs.

I've had quite a few jobs in the past, but a few some might find interesting:

  • • Night shift waitress at the Waffle House in Denver, Colorado, in 2010
  • • Night auditor at the Holiday Inn Express in Portales in 2012
  • • A waitress at a local favorite, Something Different, in Portales in 2013
  • • Cashier at the local Portales Wal-Mart in 2014
  • • Bakery assistant manager at Sprouts Market in Denver in 2015
  • • Laboratory technician at LabCorp in Denver in 2016

What advice would you give to a student interested in working in your field of study?

The biggest piece of advice I can give is to find your work-life balance. There will always be work to do, and if you do it right, work will find you. Stay focused and pursue your passion; the work-life balance will ensure you don't get too tired along the way. Burnout is real! Rest. Listen to your body, mind and spirit as they really do know the way. But don't confuse rest for laziness. Work hard; it pays off. What's that saying? Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard!

Are you involved with any organizations or causes? Volunteer work?

I started doing yearly volunteer work with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) in my high school years. I've watched my little brother suffer from Type I Diabetes since he was two years old, early in the year 2000, and this cause has been something my family has participated in the last 20 years to support him and the diabetic community.

merissa bruns and student
Merissa with Abby Altman, the first undergraduate she trained at the University of Denver. "The reward: A lifelong friendship," says Merissa.

Tell us about your family and background.

I'm a first-generation college student and proud of it. I was raised by a single mother and was taught the value of hard work and perseverance very early on. Being a first gen., I was able to pave my own path and follow my heart in the direction of my wildest dreams.

Who is your role model?

I can't say I have just one role model; however, I can say that my teachers have been the most influential role models for me. Starting as early as my high school Honors Biology teacher, Dr. Perez, to my undergraduate research advisor, Dr. Varela, to some of the individuals currently working with me at the University of Denver.

Which accomplishments and awards have you earned?

My younger self did most of the award winning. I have a Silver Award in Girl Scouts and lettered Varsity in Rugby during high school. From the Spanish Honor Society and National Honor Society to receiving the funds to study abroad in Europe, I can say I've accomplished quite a bit throughout my time in academia.

My publications have all been great accomplishments as well. Winning first place two years in a row with Dr. Varela at ENMU's Undergraduate Research Conference were gratifying and valuable awards to win.

What are your hobbies?

When I can get away from the lab, you can find me in the Rocky Mountains. I love snowboarding, paddleboarding, hiking, biking and just existing in the great outdoors. Travel is another hobby that keeps me alive and connected.

Share some interesting facts about yourself.

It wasn't too long after graduating from ENMU that I received a Type I Diabetes diagnosis myself at the young age of 25. I haven't participated in JDRF since.

I love animals and recently got a pet guinea pig named CoV "Coviee." After the Coronavirus shut down DU, I joined part of the COVID Emergency Response Team and transitioned my research focus from recombinantly produced HIV-1 antibody fragments for single particle tracking to recombinantly producing antibody fragments of COVID-19 for the same application. A new schedule, new regulations and social distancing washed out to be months working in an empty lab with new and challenging projects. 2020 proved to be a good year for new pets.

Merissa, front, in Dr. Varela’s lab.
merissa bruns and e n m u group