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Microscopic and Deadly Organisms In a Bustling City

Ward stands in front of the Taj Mahal wearing a green dress with a white scary and sunglasses on her head.
Thea Ward stands in front of the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. The Taj Mahal was one of many sites Ward got to visit.
Photo by Thea Ward

Thea Ward (‘23) came to BYU with a strong desire to understand how her education could have a broader impact on the world. She was intrigued when the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology offered a study abroad to Gwalior, India, to study the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“I’m learning about antibiotic-resistant bacteria in my classes, and I really wanted to visit India, so I took advantage of the opportunity,” Ward says.

Thanks to generous donors, BYU can send more students on academic study abroad opportunities, giving them the opportunity to participate in life-changing research. Ward participated in collecting samples of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from rivers in Gwalior.

“A large amount of the world’s antibiotics are produced in India,” Ward explains. “This contributes to the waterways filling with antibiotics from plant runoff.”

Antibiotic runoff flows into rivers that are already polluted by bacteria from sewage, trash, and animals. By pumping antibiotics into the rivers, the bacteria adapts and learns how to become resistant to the antibiotics, creating different resistant strains.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a microscopic but deadly organism, projected to be one of the most lethal diseases by 2050, even surpassing cancer. Ward’s research objective was to find bacterial DNA with antibiotic-resistant genes and learn more about the strain. “Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a real threat,” says Ward. “The whole point of our research is to figure out what is causing it and how to treat it before it becomes harmful to a patient.”

Despite the serious and looming threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Ward still had the chance to explore Gwalior. Ward paints a picture of her cultural experience: “You see people swimming, mothers cleaning their clothes, and children playing in the [Ganges]."

Ward returned from India with a new appreciation for the world and research. After graduating in the spring of 2023, Ward hopes to take a couple years to work before applying to grad school and earning a master’s degree in public health and epidemiology.