Student Profile: Alexander Yarawsky

Alex Yarawsky stands smiling in a bow tie and blue collared shirt, in front of a colorful art display.

Alexander Yarawsky has always been interested in the ways in which things work. The science of creative design, the ingredients of structure. “I’ve always been into taking things apart,” says Alex. “My wife gets mad at me when I take apart her computer. But I like understanding the details of what’s going on, of how things work.” The 2018–19 Dean’s Fellow takes this innate curiosity and puts it to proper use. His latest fixation includes watches, specifically mechanical. He bakes, too, specializing in biscotti, but he mentions a fudge recipe as well. “Baking is like mixing creativity and science,” he says, “and you get to eat it.” His main interest, however, is staphylococcal biofilms.

Alex is a fifth year PhD candidate in UC’s Department of Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry, and Microbiology. He holds bachelor’s degrees in both biology and chemistry from Northern Kentucky University. While still an undergrad student, Alex became involved in SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) at UC’s College of Medicine. This enabled him to work in the lab as a paid intern. “I came to UC and worked with the molecular genetics program and really enjoyed that,” says Alex. “It’s kind of what got me interested in grad school. I knew I wanted to be in the lab, doing research.”

Alex’s research focuses on staphylococcal biofilms. Biofilms form when bacteria clump together on surfaces. They’re a problem because biofilms are responsible for recurrent, hard to treat infections. “If you have a catheter or a hip replacement or something, and it gets infected, staph would be the most prominent cause of that kind of infection,” Alex explains. “These infections are hard to treat. The biofilm makes the bacteria very hard to kill by antibiotics. It’s difficult to penetrate the biofilm. You have to remove the device and have antibiotics for a long time.”

His research aims to solve this issue. He’s trying to understand not only how to prevent the staph biofilm from forming, but how to best treat it once it does form. And in doing so, the focus is on proteins. Turns out, certain proteins do a lot for the staph bacteria.

Proteins are found on the surface of this staph, and these proteins quite literally enable the staph biofilms to be strong and intact. “It’s been known for a long time that the structure of a protein is related to what it can do,” Alex explains, “a structure-function sort of relationship. And these proteins on the surface of this staph are very long, Velcro-like proteins. It’s like they hold all the bacteria together. Without this protein, the biofilm doesn’t hold up so well.”

But that’s not all. Alex has found that after the biofilm initially forms, the protein changes its structure. Whereas it was once elongated and Velcro-like, it morphs structurally into another form, a shape similar to that of proteins found in Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. “This sort of structure is very resistant and stable,” says Alex. “It only further stabilizes the biofilm.”

Although he has identified the problem, the solution is still murky, and understanding will only come from more researching of the staph biofilm’s proteins. Alex says, “What I’m more focused on is understanding the middle steps, [the protein] going from one structure to the next, really knowing what happens between the two points—not just characterizing the end product—figuring out how it gets there. Maybe there’s a step somewhere in between where the protein is more susceptible to treatment. It goes back to me trying to understand how things work.”

And his favorite part about his research? The creativity of it. “The day to day stuff is actually very creative. Research in general is creative,” says Alex. “I have techniques that I know I have to use. But deciding how best to approach an experiment, how best to go about an experiment, has this creative aspect in ways.”

Beyond the lab, Alex’s work does not stop. He recently published a paper in the Journal of Molecular Biology, regularly presents his research at the Gibbs Conference on Biothermodynamics, and recently presented his work at the international AUC (Analytical Ultracentrifugation) conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

When he’s not working, he’s spending time with his wife—they recently got married at Red River Gorge, but have known each other for quite some time. “We were friends on Myspace, when that was a thing,” Alex says. They have two cats, Ellie and Eva. And for the past nine years, he’s spent his free time playing in a band. “We’re called Death of a Poet. We’re like a—it’s always difficult to explain the genre—melodic metal core. Yeah, there’s a difference between metal and metal core. Metal core is like the hard stuff. I play keyboard. We have a lot of synth, electronic stuff, but we also have orchestral, piano type stuff. It’s a weird mixture of things.” They usually play at the Thompson House in Newport and the 86th Club right off campus.

And at the end of the day, everything Alex does goes together. The keyboard playing, the taking computers and watches apart, the research, the baking. It’s all about figuring out the ways in which things work. The science of creative design, the ingredients of structure.

The Graduate School Dean's Fellowship typically awards five fellowships annually to doctoral students in the final year of degree work to support superior scholarship that enhances the reputation of their program, department, and the University of Cincinnati. Alex’s award applies to the 2018-19 academic year.

Written by Danniah Daher, graduate assistant to the graduate school office.