A Micro Focus: Hussein Alramini '09

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“It’s the most toxic substance on Earth,” he says. “You could hold in your hand enough of it to kill everyone on the planet.” The bacteria causing botulism is just one of the microbes that has fascinated Hussein Alramini since he took a course on general microbiology. "It's so exciting to study these incredibly diverse organisms that live with us, but that we know so little about," he says.

At Middlebury College, Hussein majored in molecular biology and biochemistry. Under the tutelage of Given Professor of Biology and Pre-Medical Science Grace Spatafora, he excelled in the department and distinguished himself with remarkable senior research. By the time he graduated, he was the first scientist to prove that six genes of the bacteria causing Lyme disease work together through a process called operon regulation. Although this was early stage research and much work remains to be done, his findings could one day contribute to the development of a vaccine.

Hussein’s passion for exploring the microbial world started long before his undergraduate days. As a young boy growing up in Amman, Jordan, he remembers reading encyclopedias and watching science documentaries—and coveting the microscope he once received as a birthday gift. For as long as he can remember, studying medicine has been his plan. “I just always felt it in my heart, ” he explains. After medical school, he hopes to end up at the World Health Organization, where he will be able to “touch the lives of many people at once, instead of one patient at a time.” In particular, he dreams of researching infectious diseases around the world.

Two years at the United World College in Hong Kong prepared Hussein to attend Middlebury College as a Davis UWC Scholar. After graduating in 2009, he spent a summer as a Davis UWC Scholars Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is now a research assistant at Stanford University, where he studies the organism that causes amoebic dysentery. Although anti-parasitic drugs are available for this illness, Hussein hopes his work might one day contribute to a vaccine.

In his summer at Monterey, Hussein explored the more malevolent side of microbiology. At the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, he investigated the historic and contemporary use of chemical and biological weapons. The Mongols were among the first to conscript microbes, catapulting plague-infested corpses into besieged cities, and microscopic recruits have been used in warfare ever since—often with horrifying results. Hussein cites the infamous example of the World War Two-era Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army, which killed hundreds of thousands by testing chemical and biological agents on human subjects.

While he believes the contemporary fear of bioterrorism is exacerbated by the media, Hussein thinks prevention and preparation should remain a national priority, so that a more serious threat does not develop. “History has taught us that we need to be prepared,” he says.

As one of only a handful of scientists among his colleagues at Monterey, Hussein’s perspective was highly valued. In the first part of the summer, he researched the use of thermal scanners for early detection of biological attacks. His second project was focused on aerosol delivery systems, which make it possible for large groups of people to literally breathe in an airborne vaccine. Unfortunately, he says, terrorists can misuse the same technology that works wonders for public health—for example, to release anthrax spores in a manner impossible to contain.

Hussein hopes to use his increasing expertise to address persistent pandemics like malaria and tuberculosis, which he feels pose an even greater threat to humanity than biological and chemical weapons. He hopes his two years in the lab at Stanford will provide both the academic break and the intellectual challenge he needs to prepare for medical school. “There is so much to know; there is really no limit to what can be learned in this field,” he says. “And the more I learn, the more I will be able to help in the future.”