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From the Classroom to Gwalior: The Hunt For Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Microbiology and molecular biology student Madison Duffy ('23) received a travel grant to help fund her research of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that resides in Gwalior, India’s rivers.

Duffy’s research went hand-in-hand with one of India’s greatest wonders: the Ganges River. She said it was fascinating to see the holy river from both a religious aspect and a scientific perspective. Legend says that anyone who bathes in the Ganges will be cured of any disease.

Instances of healing have been linked to the bacteria phages that reside in the river. Phages are considered an “effective solution” against some forms of bacteria, according to the National Library of Medicine.

But miracle phages aren’t the only microorganisms residing in India’s rivers. India is the world’s number one spot for antibiotic manufacturing factories. The factory’s byproducts are dumped into the water systems, making India’s rivers a hot spot for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“[Antibiotic-resistant bacteria] is supposed to be the number one killer by 2050—even above cancer and heart disease,” Duffy explains. “Our primary objective in India was to collect water samples and then isolate the bacterial DNA, so we could potentially use it to find solutions for antibiotic-resistant infections.”

BYU’s motto is “The world is our campus, ” and Duffy certainly took that to heart. While on breaks from river research, “we would spend a lot of time exploring Gwalior,” Duffy says. “We visited markets and explored the town as much as we possibly could.”

Gwalior is known for its beautiful architecture, especially in the palaces and temples, but the city also has a reputation for hospitality. “Everybody was super, super kind and welcoming, Duffy says. "They were willing to do whatever it was to make us feel comfortable.”

Tall buildings line a sparkling river dotted with boats.
Duffy got to explore a few different Indian rivers as a part of her study abroad experience. The Gwalior river is where she spent a lot of time collecting samples and exploring.
Photo by Madison Duffy

The welcome even extended to an invitation to a Hindu wedding ceremony for a family member of their host, Neha Sharma. Duffy also got a taste of India’s entertainment culture through, what she describes, as the “height of cinematic drama”: Bollywood.

After three months of vigorous research and rich cultural experiences, Duffy has learned to never give up on the things that inspire her. Set to graduate in April 2023, Duffy hopes to use the bacterial DNA she gathered in India to find treatments for antibiotic- resistant infections, and carry that research into a future career.