How would you sum up the focus of your research?
We focus mostly on the fungal cell wall. We use C. neoformans as our model system. It’s interesting because it’s a basidiomycete, so it’s very different than the ascomycetes, like baker’s years and aspergillus, which is where much of the cell wall work has been done in the past. We’ve done a fair amount of work on signal transduction – the mechanism by which cells will sense damage to the wall or the need to deposit new cell wall material. We’ve also tied that to the sensing of oxidative and nitrositive stress, which a fungus might encounter when it enters a mammalian lung.
Why focus on the cell wall?
It’s the face of the fungus to the world. The cell wall is the barrier between the cell and the external environment, and many virulence factors are attached to it. And then there are lots of proteins that interact with the environment or the host that are attached to the wall, so understanding the structure of the wall and how it’s made is very important. Also, the cell wall is an organelle that fungi have but humans don’t, so it’s a really good target for antifungal therapy.
You were one of three main co-authors of a report on the genome sequence AND transcriptome of C. neoformans. Sounds like it was a big job. Would you do it again?
Absolutely. It was really exciting. It was important at the time – back then it was difficult and expensive. The sequence really brought our field together and launched molecular genetics and advanced not only what my lab could do, but what everybody else in the field could do, too. It created cohesion and brought more people into cryptococcal biology than it would have if we had waited.
Where do you see your field in 10 years?
I think, as with many fields, we’re going to see a lot more focus on the interaction with translational science. There’s been a shift already in going from the molecular biology and biochemistry of the fungal cell to understanding the interactions with the host cells, and that trend is going to continue. Right now we see a big emphasis on the genes that are involved in infection and pathogenicity. Ten years from now we’ll have a really good handle on that and be able to focus on the actual molecules that are involved. There’ll be a much bigger emphasis on the translational science. I think it’s going to be exciting. As they say, the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades.
If you had to change careers today and you could do anything, what would you do?
If I had to change? The idea of being an architect is really fascinating to me. The idea of designing spaces that work well for people and foster better human interactions seems very exciting.
What’s your favorite science book?
One of my favorites was called The Beak of the Finch. What I loved about it is I always had this perception of evolution being this slow, drawn out process, and this book pointed out how quickly evolution can happen. Another favorite is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It emphasizes how science happens, but it also pointed out how far we’ve come in terms of respecting each other as we proceed with science.
What is something about you that most people don’t know?
I used to be an athlete in college and high school, and it’s something I don’t get to do as much as I’d like. I played field hockey, ran track, did a little basketball, played lacrosse – I did anything.