Chris Reid in his lab
Christopher Reid, Ph.D., professor of Biological and Biomedical Studies, works to develop antibacterial and antifungal compounds that could one day save lives.
Born to tinker, Reid combats antibiotics crisis one discovery at a time
Aug 30, 2023, by Stephen Kostrzewa
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Christopher Reid, Ph.D., has always been captivated by what he calls “slick science,” the unlikely discoveries that result from ingenuity, determination, and stubbornness. “I like the idea that small ideas can lead to something really big,” notes Reid, a professor of Biological and Biomedical Studies at Bryant University.

That concept has served to define his career. As lead investigator in his microbial glycoscience lab, he works to develop antibacterial and antifungal compounds that could one day save lives. But he’s also invested in preparing a new generation of scientists, researchers, and medical professionals for their own careers by sparking their curiosity.

Since starting the Reid Lab in 2010, he and his fellow researchers have developed three patents with another on the way; multiple journal articles with student investigators featured prominently; and a highly competitive National Science Foundation Grant funding the work.

When asked the secret of his lab’s success, though, he answers in the reserved, understated manner of a scientist who takes nothing for granted. “I'm actually kind of impressed by the sheer amount that we've been able to get accomplished over the years,” he admits. “We just keep plugging away.”

Safeguarding the future 
Currently, Reid and his team are working to address a rising tide of antimicrobial resistance, which occurs when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them — making some diseases difficult, if not impossible, to treat.

The resulting problem, notes Reid, is approaching “near crisis-level proportions,” citing sources ranging from the Pew Research Center to the U.S. Department of Defense to the United States Centers for Disease Control, which calls it an “urgent global public health threat.”

Most of the new antimicrobials that have received FDA approval are combination therapies using existing drugs to overcome existing resistance problems, Reid explains, largely because it’s more cost-effective for pharmaceutical companies than developing new drugs that might decrease in efficacy before the end of their patent life.

“It takes drive and just plain stubbornness. You know you have to work your way through.”

But combating a wily and resilient enemy requires developing new weapons and new ideas — and the lion’s share of that work has been left to small biotech firms and academic labs like Reid’s. Today, much of his team’s focus is on masarimycin, a chemical compound developed in the Reid Lab that exhibits promising antibacterial applications.

Science is an iterative process, Reid notes, and masarimycin is the product of more than ten years of tweaking, evaluating, and reconfiguring compounds to increase their efficiency. It’s the descendant of a previous, less successful molecule developed in Reid’s lab and, hopefully, he notes, the precursor to a more effective third molecule.

They developed masarimycin themselves, but there’s always more to learn. “After five or six years, we're still trying to figure out how the heck it does its job and fully understand what the hell's going on in the cell when it halts growth,” he says.

That unpredictability is a hallmark of lab science, states Reid. “Working in a lab is 95 percent failure. You’re living for that 5 percent.”

To make it to that 5 percent, he says, “It takes drive and just plain stubbornness. You know you have to work your way through.”

Sometimes that means plumbing the depths of the great unknown, others it’s a more mundane game of whack-a-mole with countless glitches that can deter an experiment. “Being a scientist means being okay with things not working, because they will not work a lot,” Reid explains.

Reid notes the chain of experiments that led to masarimycin was “high-risk” and could have easily failed to pan out. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it to try. He points to one of his first assignments as an assistant research officer with the National Research Council in Ottawa Canada, as an example. “My first boss gave me a project, she asked me to work on it and see where it goes, and my first thought was ‘Oh, this is never gonna work. It's never gonna work.’  But I kept at it — ‘We'll try this. We'll try this.’ And nothing worked.

“I'm not built for being behind a desk, and I still like tinkering and seeing what new information we can squeeze out of the instruments.”

“Finally, I said, ‘this is my final experiment on this project. I feel like I've explored the space. I've done everything I can think of.’ And that last freaking experiment — it freaking worked!” he says. “It took off and led to two high-yielding papers."

There’s another lesson, besides perseverance, buried in that story, Reid notes. “One of the things I tell my students is that you can never count out the value of luck.”

Born to tinker 
Reid grew up in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario — the one-time nickel capital of the world. As a high school student, his grades weren’t always the best, but he found his space in the shop: auto mechanics, woodworking, electrical work. “I’ve always liked to tinker with things,” he reflects.

He discovered his love for science during his sophomore year of college through working in the lab of Dr. Hermann Falter doing cancer research and developing procedures for screening blood. In the lab, he was able to indulge his love of tinkering, but he also found something unexpected — a way to express himself.

“I find lab work very creative, which sometimes surprises people,” Reid says. “When you hear about creative people, most of the time they’re talking about folks in the humanities or social sciences. People don't think science.” 

In his eyes, science is an adventure — a roller coaster ride of ups-and-downs and ever-present surprises. “I'm not built for being behind a desk, and I still like tinkering and seeing what new information we can squeeze out of the instruments,” he admits.

“Not everyone ends up on a paper, but quite a few of our students do at some point.”

Reid also benefited from mentorship during his time in Falter’s lab. He continued to work with him for the remainder of his time in college and their friendship sustained until the latter’s passing. recalls Reid. “Even after I went away to grad school, he would invite me out to a sports bar in my hometown called Eddie's when I came to visit.”

When college concluded, Reid went on to study at University of Waterloo, almost by default. “I might be one of the only ones that went on to grad school,” Reid remembers. “There weren’t a lot of options in Sudbury at the time.”

It was in his Ph.D. program at University of Guelph that he found the field that would become his life’s work. Under the tutelage of Dr. Anthony Clarke, Reid immersed himself in carbohydrate chemistry and glycobiology, a foundation for addressing biological problems with chemistry that would go on to inform his work at Bryant. “Chemistry opened up a wealth of opportunities and experiences for a boy from Northern Ontario,” he reflects.

In Clarke’s lab, Reid was once again part of a close-knit lab that would, in some ways, become a sort of family with Clarke at its head. That experience, and his time with Falter, he notes, left a profound mark on him and informs how he teaches.

The next generations 
As much as Reid enjoys discussing his work, his face lights up equally when he mentions his current and former students, who have found their own success across a range of fields, like Matthew Pepin ’21, now an M.D. candidate at University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School; or Ryan Miller '15, a senior microbiologist at Odyssey Therapeutics or Jett Duval ’24, one of his current student researchers who came to his lab not sure about her future, only to discover a love for the work.

An undergraduate research position in the Reid lab can be an important differentiator for students preparing for their careers. “This is on-the-job training for them,” he points out, noting the lab’s high standards and research output. In addition to demonstrating their proficiency at professional scientific research — Duval, for instance, recently presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society — the student investigators’ work also lands in scholarly journal articles and on patents.

“The most important things I look for are interest in the science, curiosity, and the capacity to ‘own’ the project that they’re working on.”

“Not everyone ends up on a paper, but quite a few of our students do at some point,” Reid says.

He notes that one of the factors that played into the lab receiving its NSF grant was its track record for preparing, utilizing, and retaining its undergrad researchers. “When I’m bringing in student researchers, I'm not all that interested in their grades; I wasn’t the best student in school and don't necessarily find grades are a good reflection of ability in the lab,” Reid says. “The most important things I look for are interest in the science, curiosity, and the capacity to ‘own’ the project that they’re working on.”

Like his own mentors, Reid takes great care to prepare his students for the world after college, discussing potential career paths with them and introducing them to the broader scientific community through events like the annual undergraduate Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium so they can make important connections. He remains in close contact with many of the students even as they are now well into their own careers, acting as a guide, a sounding board, a bridge builder — and a colleague.

RELATED: ‘I’m part of this larger conversation’: Student researchers make scientific impact in RI.

Most of all, he’s trying to prepare them to become a new generation of tinkerers. “If there’s one thing I want my students to walk away from my lab with, it’s the idea that they need to experiment,” Reid says. A hockey fan, he references Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote, “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take” — a motto he has taken to heart. “If we don't try everything we can, how are we going to know what works best?” he notes. 

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