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 laboratory experiments, they learned that if those two points were mutated, the virus could not survive.

“It sounds complicated, but it’s not,” Cox said with a laugh.

The discovery could have major implications in the treatment or prevention of hepatitis-C, she said. 

There is no vaccine for the infection and therapies have profound side effects.

“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.

After the discovery, Cox and the other team members wrote a paper detailing their research and findings and submitted it to the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, a scientific journal.

“And we hoped people would think it was as exciting as we did,” she said.

The article was published in the journal’s January 2011 issue. More than a year later, the paper was among six articles chosen for 2011 Cozzarelli prizes from about 3,500 submissions.

Rose Smith, chairwoman of the science department at Waterville Senior High School, said she remembers Cox well. Smith said she’s not surprised to hear Cox’s academic career has taken off.

“She was very directed, very interested in science and a top-notch student,” Smith said. “She was willing to do whatever she could to help the team, and she was just outstanding.”

Smith, who has been at the school since 1987, said Cox competed on the Science Olympiad team for three years, which included three consecutive state championships and national competitions at Chicago, Denver and Spokane, Wash.

The science team was formed in 1988 and has won 16 state championships since then, including a win earlier this month. Smith said there’s a lot of talent in the science department in Waterville, but she credits the students for their perseverance.

Cox said her alma mater prepared her well for her higher learning, and the teachers cultivated an ongoing interest in science.

“I feel like Waterville High School gave me the skills I needed to do well in college. I knew how to study. I knew how to balance work and life,” she said. “(College) was a little intimidating, but I felt like I knew what I was doing as soon as I got there.”

After graduating from Waterville in 2001, Cox went to Yale University. Then, from 2005 to 2007, she worked as a technician at a hepatitis-C lab at Rockefeller University in New York City. Today, she’s in her fifth year of graduate studies at Stanford, and hopes to complete her master’s thesis by the end of this year.

The subject of her thesis is the same as her award-winning paper.

Cox said it’s a mixed blessing to be completely focused on two microscopic points of biomedical science.

“On the one hand, it’s really cool because you learn basically everything about a very specific interaction, and you become an expert on a very tiny part of science,” she said. “On the other hand, it can be somewhat limiting, because not many people besides you know what you’re studying.”

Ben McCanna — 861-9239
[email protected]