Leslie Atahualpa ’22 Is Blazing New Trails in Science

In science, a research gap is a question that has not been asked or answered by previous or existing studies or a gap that exists because a new concept or idea is only just being investigated. Leslie Atahualpa ’22, now a sophomore at Davidson College, is doing her part to close the gap on understanding how bacteria defend themselves from attack. She spent her summer conducting research as part of Davidson’s RISE program — a four-week intensive summer research fellowship in the sciences intended to introduce students to undergraduate research.

“No one has really dug into this area of study,” Atahualpa explained. “This is all new. Scientists are now paying more attention to bacteria’s defense system. We don’t fully understand, but as science progresses, we want to understand more and see how this knowledge can benefit us. I was conducting research with a faculty mentor, Dr. Bryan Thurtle-Schmidt, who is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Davidson.”

What initially attracted Atuhaulpa to Dr. Schmidt’s lab was his research into proteins — specifically his focus on a protein family called old nucleases which are known to provide bacterial defense against viruses known as phages t​​hat infect bacteria. “Dr. Schmidt once said that no one has really gone into the nooks and crannies of this research, so we’re working to uncover its full potential and that interests me,” related Atahualpa.

Atahualpa is no stranger to investigating new territory. She is a first generation American raised by a single mom who emigrated from Peru in the 1990s. She joined Oak Knoll as a freshman. “Honestly, in the beginning, when I first came to Oak Knoll, I felt a little disconnected from myself and from my Hispanic roots because I wanted to fit in,” she said. “Then I quickly realized that I didn’t need to feel like I had to fit in. I should just be who I am, because who I am is acceptable and included by this community.”

That feeling of community is what endeared Atahualpa most to Oak Knoll. “I loved how everyone was so welcoming — teachers, staff, students, everyone. The close friendships that I formed with my classmates remain and I also built strong relationships with teachers. They always made time for me to meet and go over course materials. I will say that Oak Knoll watered the seeds of my interest in the sciences. I remember taking biology, I think it was my sophomore year, and I loved it. Then I started taking a number of AP courses in the sciences,” she related.

Atahualpa said Oak Knoll also nurtured her growing interest in her roots and Latin American Studies. She was a member of the Shades Club and eventually president. Shades is Oak Knoll’s multicultural association. At weekly meetings, members share their cultures and ethnicities and discuss current topics about diversity. “Shades really felt like a home away from home — a place where I could connect to other students who shared an interest in issues happening in the media or just raising awareness to problems not just happening in America, but all throughout the world,” she explained.

As a result of her interest in cultures and backgrounds, she selected her minor in Latin American Studies at Davidson. “I didn’t expect there to be such a wide range of classes covering the Latin American experience — economies, histories, literature, music, dance, and cinema,” she related.

Atahualpa will likely be back in Dr. Schmidt’s lab next summer continuing to blaze new trails in the study of bacteria. In the meantime, she will be exploring all her subjects at Davidson with the same sense of awe and curiosity that define her approach to life and learning.