WATERVILLE – The focus of Erica Machlin Cox’s research isn’t just narrow. It’s microscopic.

Cox is a 2001 Waterville Senior High School graduate, and was a three-year veteran of its Science Olympiad team. Today, the 28-year-old scientist studies interactions between the hepatitis-C virus and liver cells as a graduate student at Stanford University in California.

Those studies have earned Cox and a team of colleagues the 2011 Cozzarelli Prize for Biomedical Sciences from the National Academy of Sciences.

The area of Cox’s focus is two infinitesimally small points on liver-specific ribonucleic acid, or miR-122. Cox and her partners discovered that those two points are binding sites for the hepatitis-C virus, which is known to cause liver cancer. Through lab experiments, they learned that if those two points were mutated, the virus could not survive.

“The more we know about the interactions between miR-122 and (the virus), the better off we’ll be in figuring out which drugs to use and developing drugs to target it,” she said.