2014 Trevecca graduate pursues doctorate, researches infectious diseases

When COVID-19 brought her lab research to a halt, Audra Fullen wasn’t sure what to do with herself. 

“In the middle of March, they told us to go home until further notice,” said Fullen, a 2014 Trevecca graduate pursuing her doctorate at The Ohio State University. “As someone who works in the lab 10 hours a day, I was very out of my comfort zone. My degree is based on what I do in the lab, so I learned how to work from home to an extent but it was difficult.” 

Now back in the lab part-time, Fullen’s research is moving forward. In the midst of a global pandemic, she’s quick to see the vital role research like hers can play in creating a healthier global community. 

“My emphasis is infectious diseases, and I study a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis, which causes whooping cough,” Fullen said. “There is a vaccine for whooping cough, but it’s not very effective. In the lab I work in, we’re striving to try to find a better vaccine but also determine how the bacteria can survive in a vaccinated person. That’s what my project is about—how the bacteria can survive and resist your immune system even though it’s vaccinated. 

“I think now, in the middle of a global pandemic, understanding science as a global health problem is really important,” Fullen continued. “If a vaccine is not as effective as it could be, we as scientists need to make sure that we’re doing our best to provide the best prevention and therapeutics for our country and our world. That’s why I chose to work [in this lab]: it has a very direct human and global health impact.” 

While research occupies most of her time and attention, Fullen doesn’t take her eyes off her end goal: teaching. It’s a goal Fullen says her Trevecca experience helped nurture. 

“Seeing how the science community was at Trevecca and having professors like Dr. [Alisha] Russell and Dr. [Yanice] Mendez and seeing the impact they had at a small liberal arts school, I wanted to strive for that in the future,” Fullen said. “I really do like research, but to me, the end goal is to be able to go back and teach at a small Christian college.”

Earning her bachelor’s degree at a Christian college was important to Fullen. Growing up in Nolensville, Tennessee, just southeast of Nashville, she’d heard of Trevecca, but it was an offer to play soccer that helped solidify her college decision. 

“I came to Trevecca on a soccer scholarship and played soccer all four years,” Fullen said. “I wanted to go to a Christian school. That’s what I wanted as the basis of my education.” 

Practices, games and travel for soccer made pursuing science outside the classroom difficult, so Fullen dug into her coursework and leaned on the Trevecca biology faculty to help her find “resumé-builders” after graduation that helped her pursue her career goals. 

Dr. Alisha Russell, professor of biology, remembers Fullen as a dedicated student who was willing to work hard to achieve her goals. 

“Audra worked hard at everything she did relentlessly, driving toward her goal both on the field and in the classroom—but in a way that welcomed others to come along for the ride,” Russell said.  

After graduation, Fullen pursued a master’s in biomolecular science at another local university, then spent two years working as a research assistant in the Skaar Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She moved to Ohio in 2017 to pursue her Ph.D. 

Now three years into her doctoral program, Fullen is thankful for many of the qualities Trevecca faculty members helped her and her classmates develop—“diligence, resilience and always striving toward that next step for something better.” 

Most of all, Fullen appreciates the Christian perspective Trevecca faculty members nurtured. 

“I think the Christian perspective that they bring to science and math is phenomenal, and I’ve tried to bring that perspective to my work every day,” Fullen said. “[My faith] is the reason I’m in science. Understanding that God created everything so that everything we’re learning in science is part of His creation. We’re trying to figure out these answers to these questions, but He’s given us the ability to figure it out. That’s why I do what I do.” 

Despite the COVID-caused setback to her research, Fullen used her time at home wisely. She published a paper, Whoop! There it is: The surprising resurgence of pertussis, in July. 

“I was able to publish a paper and that was really great,” Fullen said. “I was able to get that writing done during my stay-at-home. It’s been very interesting. I never would have pictured graduate school looking like this.”  

Learn more about the programs in Trevecca’s Department of Science, Engineering and Mathematics.

Media contact: Mandy Crow, mmcrow@trevecca.edu, 615-248-1695