Sara Nitcher, Ph.D.
Are there novel genetic markers that can be used for more precise subject identification in forensic investigations? How can we know if a particular microbe carries the genes for resistance to an antibiotic? These are just a few of the questions Dr. Sara Nitcher has tackled for Battelle’s clients.
A biochemist by training, Sara now serves as a Principal Research Scientist on the Battelle Applied Genomics team, where she supports research and development projects for forensic and non-forensic applications of genomic technologies. Her current projects include evaluating technologies for metagenomic identification of microbes in environmental samples and identifying the best methods for homogenizing various types of biological samples. She also supports Battelle’s research into Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technologies for forensics, including identification of new markers that could lead to more accurate and precise identification of subjects.
Previously, she was heavily involved with the development of CRITERIOME, an innovative bio-sequence characterization program developed by Battelle. CRITERIOME allows for rapid and accurate identification of microbes along with predictions of antibiotic resistance based on the presence of specific genetic sequences. Rather than waiting days for clinical cultures to grow and be tested for antibiotic resistance, samples can instead be subjected to NGS and the sequences evaluated with CRITERIOME to determine whether or not they have genes associated with resistance to particular antibiotics. CRITERIOME also provides users with a listing of the drugs for which the identified genes confer resistance against, as well as a report of the microorganisms present within the sample. Sara helped to develop the knowledge base in the domain of antibiotic resistance and a curated data set with more than 250,000 nucleotide sequences that the program uses to identify resistance factors. In addition, she helped to develop the user requirements and specifications for the software.
In the future, Sara plans to continue to support Battelle’s NGS forensics and molecular genomics work. She hopes to focus on using molecular tools to develop better medical diagnostics.
Prior to joining Battelle in 2011, Sara completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia, where she led an independent research project studying enzyme structure, function and interactions using Xenopus laevis embryos. She also served as Assistant Professor of Microbiology at Piedmont Virginia Community College. She holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics and an M.S. in Biological and Physical Sciences from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in Biochemistry from the University of Kansas.
Outside of work, Sara is heavily involved in mentorship and support for young women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. She has helped to coordinate forums for middle and high school girls interested in STEM careers and co-founded the Women in Mathematics and Science organization at the University of Virginia. She served on the Battelle Women’s Network Membership and Outreach Subcommittee.