With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Rachel J Whitaker, PhD
Professor of Microbiology
Theme Leader Infection Genomics for One Health
Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology
Rachel J Whitaker is a Professor of Microbiology in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology where she teaches MCB 435, Evolution of Infectious Diseases. Dr. Whitaker also leads the Infection Genomics for One Health research theme at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). Dr. Whitaker is also one of five principal investigators leading GEMS: Genomics and Eco-evolution of Multi-Scale Symbiosis, an NSF Biology Integration Institute based at IGB. Dr. Whitaker’s large research group investigates the dynamics of microbes and their viruses using a combination of genomics, experimental evolution, modeling, and molecular biology. To read more about Dr. Whitaker, you can check out her profile on the MCB website.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
After college, I was working in a cancer immunology lab. I loved research but the community, approaches and the daunting variation and complexity of human immunity was not my style. I went to the library every Tuesday night and read articles from the stack of scientific journals to see what I liked. I found the work of Norman Pace on microbial diversity and his highlight of Carl Woese. The rest was history. “Who wouldn’t want to study the third domain of life?” My fascination with viruses came years later from signatures in microbial genomes that showed viruses are a real driving force of evolution and that is when I got back to studying immunity; this time in CRISPRs.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
I spend most of my time at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology in the Infection Genomics for One Health theme doing interdisciplinary research. The perspectives from a diversity of sciences and social sciences impacts the science that I do and the way I do it.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
I spent last spring, summer and fall working with a group of anthropologists to form a group called the Labor Health and Equity Action Project (LHEAP) to try to bring the testing resources of the University to communities like those in Rantoul, IL where testing is (still) not readily available. The inequities in access, misperceptions and assumptions about community members who are not associated with the academic mission of the University amazed me. I believe in science (especially infectious disease). The context makes a huge difference and should inform the experiments we do and questions we ask in the lab to make an impact on the world. This became more clear to me through this project and I think that points to the importance of reaching out and building connections to the real world from the campus community.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
I am very excited about the NSF funded Biology Integration Institute Genomics and Eco-evolution of Multi-scale Symbioses (GEMS). This institute is designed to integrate biological disciplines to understand how nested genomes impact evolutionary dynamics. The exciting part is the amazing group of students and faculty who are committed to integrating biology. I love to stretch my mind in new directions and being part of this institute requires us to do this together.