Veronica Holmes, Ph.D.

Veronica Holmes, Ph.D., ’02 has come a long way from the world of accounting and bookkeeping. As a microbiologist working to develop a topical microbicide to prevent the transmission of HIV, Holmes now spends her days in the laboratory running experiments involving RNA isolation, DNA sequence analysis, and the creation of stable cell lines.

When Holmes graduated from high school, she didn’t know what she wanted to do; since it would have been difficult for her family to have three children in college simultaneously, her parents suggested that she take a year off, find a job, and give herself some time to get a feel for what she wanted to do with her life.

Holmes began working for Robert Bruce Designs as a bookkeeper and executive assistant, and after a few years moved on to Global Rubber, Inc. as operations manager. As Holmes put it, “One year turned into 10.”

By this time, Holmes was married and living with her husband in East Whiteland. When her mother suffered a heart attack and a stroke, neither of Holmes’s sisters, who both had children, could stop working to help provide care. But Holmes was able to leave her job and devote herself to her mother, who needed a family member with her to prevent agitation.

When her mother passed away after many months, Holmes suddenly found herself at loose ends, wondering what she should do next. Her husband, Bill, suggested that she revisit her interest in biology and consider returning to school.

“When I was younger,” said Holmes, “I focused on business because I was intimidated by science. But my husband encouraged me so that instead of looking at my mother’s death as a tragedy, I could see it as an opportunity.”

After exploring her options, Holmes chose to enroll at Immaculata. “I wanted to stay close to my family, and I wanted a small school with smaller classes.”

What impressed Holmes the most was the diversity of teaching techniques employed by her professors. In physiology lab, Dr. Frank Martin had students build a robot from Legos and program it, making sure they got all the nerve pathways right.

“Sister Marie Cooper, my physics teacher, would pick up a bouncy ball and throw it across the room to make a point about physics,” said Holmes. “She was a wonderful teacher. She always took time with me, and I always try to see her when I go back.”

Holmes appreciated the extra attention since, unlike many other schools, IU offers calculus-based physics. “It was very difficult for me,” said Holmes. “I got a B, one of my lowest grades, and it was the hardest B I’ve ever worked for!”

The independent labs were another source of preparation for Holmes. “I have no problem now, nor did I in graduate school, because I was used to hands-on independent work. It was an excellent learning experience.”

After graduating from IU, Holmes spent a semester at Temple before transferring to Drexel, starting there at the same time as her Ph.D. thesis advisor, Mary K. Howett, internationally renowned virologist and then the new chair of the Department of Bioscience and Biotechnology. “I took her intro to virology class, which is what I teach now,” said Holmes. “She was one of the main reasons that Gardasil was developed, and I found her work fascinating. Instead of treating diseases and symptoms, why not try to prevent viral infections altogether?”

The research Holmes conducts now at the University of Pennsylvania focuses on developing a microbicide that will prevent infection from sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV. Holmes explained the goal of her work by comparing the HIV virus to a small fishing boat that she is trying to block from docking at the pier. “When certain proteins capture the pathogens and sequester them from the environment, they’re keeping that virus from being exposed to the very things that would disable it.”

Holmes described the complexity of her research into the DNA sequence of a particular protein this way: “It’s like sitting down to do a 6,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s all sky and clouds.”

Holmes’s interest in microbicides took on new meaning when she learned about the plight of women in other parts of the world who cannot say no to infected men.

“In certain areas of South Africa,” said Holmes, “for women aged 14 to 30, the biggest risk factor is having a husband who travels for work. He’ll become infected, but the wife cannot refuse him or she’ll be beaten and raped. I found that very compelling.”

The microbicide that Holmes is working to develop would be completely undetectable, providing a way for women at risk to protect themselves without the fear of detection by a partner. “This is a way of empowering women,” she said.

When Holmes originally went for her Ph.D., she thought about going into pharmaceuticals. “But there are so many benefits to working in the academic environment,” she said. “You have much more intellectual freedom.”

Over the next few years, Holmes will have to make some career decisions. “I can go into industry and use more of my business background,” she said. “But I’ve been so fortunate to find something I truly love. I’m not sure I’m ready to walk away from the bench.”

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