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.
Adrienne Antonson, PhD
Department of Animal Sciences
Dr. Adrienne Antonson is an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences. She received her PhD in Immunology and Behavior at Illinois and completed her postdoctoral training at The Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. Her research program is anchored within the fields of immunology, microbiology, and developmental and behavioral neuroscience. Using translational animal models, the Antonson Developmental Neuroimmunology Lab investigates the inflammatory pathways underlying perturbations in offspring neurodevelopment, glial cell function, and behavior elicited during maternal gestational insults. They utilize live pathogen infection during pregnancy to better understand the etiologies of neurodevelopmental disorders, which are linked to gestational exposure to maternal immune activation.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I am from a small rural town in upstate New York, which is where I learned to love nature and biology. I went to Ithaca College in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of the state, and I had my first introduction to research during my sophomore undergraduate year. By the time I applied to graduate school, I knew I wanted to study neuroscience and behavior, but I didn’t really know what research at an R1 institution looked like, nor what specific research area I wanted to pursue. I ended up falling in love with the interdisciplinary research that I do now, termed PsychoNeuroImmunology (PNI), which is at the crossroads of psychology (or behavior), neuroscience, and immunology. I actually initially applied to the Animal Sciences program here at the U of I as a Masters student, and before the end of my first year in the program, I knew I wanted to transition to the PhD track. What I love most about PNI research is the systems perspective; biological systems do not, and often cannot, function without signaling inputs from neighboring structures. The nervous system sends AND receives signals from the periphery, including immunological signals and microbial signals. The opposite is also true. And each of these connections ultimately modulates behavior, both in the short term (as in sickness behavior or stress responses like fight or flight) and the long term (as in psychiatric or mental health disorders). My particular interest lies in how immune and microbial signals regulate neurodevelopment and behavior during critical prenatal windows, when the developing organism is still enveloped in, and communicating with, the maternal environment.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
I definitely had a leg up in knowing how great Illinois is for research because I spent 5 years of my PhD training here, and was exposed to just about every core facility and research institute. For someone who does interdisciplinary work, the resources that are required for each facet of my research differs, and Illinois happens to have fantastic resources in all of these areas (The Beckman Institute, The Sequencing Center, the Metabolomics and Proteomics Cores, the IGB Imaging Core, and the Rodent Gnotobiotic Facility, to name a few). I also do research with large animal models (mostly swine), and there are very few institutions that not only have research farm facilities on campus, but also have the ability to run large animal studies at the BSL2 level (biocontainment), which is essential for the work I do with live viruses. And, most importantly, the people at the Illinois are wonderful, friendly, and welcoming! The folks affiliated with the MSI are some of the nicest and most inclusive and supportive group of people I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my career so far!
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
The purpose of my research is to unravel the neuroimmune etiologies of mental health disorders, particularly those that manifest in early development (termed neurodevelopmental disorders; NDDs). My dream, like most scientists, is that my body of work will, in some way, contribute to the discovery or development of therapeutic interventions and treatment options for those who suffer from disease. While I work in the preclinical research realm, I one day hope to partner with scientists in the clinic. I believe it is absolutely possible that new, viable treatment options for NDDs (like schizophrenia and Autism Spectrum Disorder) are discoverable within my lifetime. And if all I get to say by the end of my career is, “I contributed to that greater good in some small way,” that will be enough.
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?
This is a big one, with a LOT to unpack! I am certain that I do not know all the answers (or even most of them), but I am just as certain that scientists in every field have a role to play. Within the lab, all principal investigators should actively strive to cultivate an inclusive environment free from bias and discrimination, should aim to recruit a diverse group of lab members, and should encourage fact over fiction—regardless of their field. Outside of the lab, a scientist should aim to communicate their work to lay audiences at every available opportunity, and should reach out to policy makers when the opportunity arises. However, improving scientific outreach and communication is, I fear, easier said than done when the infrastructure is lacking.
It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the political climate within the U.S. contributed to Americans’ polarized perspectives of the existence of systemic racism and the realities of COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus does not see red or blue, and people across the country and across the globe suffered and lost loved ones; we are all still suffering. People across the country suffer the injustices of decades of systemic racism, and only sometimes are their voices heard. I have no hesitation in stating that I believe misinformation on social media sites like Facebook negatively contributes to the denial of systemic racism in this country, and denial of COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy (heck, denial of the existence of a pandemic). These media sites not only spread misinformation, they perpetuate polarization by creating silos.
Addressing these challenges isn’t as simple as improving education and awareness of the American public. Solutions have to come in many forms, from many different areas, including the policy makers (not just the scientific community at large). And these solutions must ultimately change peoples’ perspectives. A change in perspective does not only involve learning new things, it involves re-learning; in other words, the “un-learning” of biased or slanted information. So much of what drives public opinion is based on emotions—strong, ingrained, blinding emotions—rather than rational consideration of proven facts. Moreover, lack of access to proven facts (plain, digestible scientific information) is a large factor in determining people’s perspectives.
While not entirely unrelated, I believe the lack of awareness and acceptance of mental health stems from a somewhat different type of ignorance. As a society, Americans are trained to mostly ignore their mental health; we are rewarded for joining the “rat race” that defines the business climate. Personally, I have taken specific steps to ensure that the members of my lab are able to listen to their minds and bodies, to take time off of work when needed, to find the right work-life balance; the jury is still out on whether this will be 100% successful, but I would encourage all other principal investigators to do the same! As a society, it is again a much bigger beast to tackle. I am, however, still willing to try, starting with advocacy, public communication, and reaching out to policy makers.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
I am wholly excited by each and every one of the projects my new graduate students and lab technician are diving into right now. I could not have asked for a better group of more dedicated, passionate, intelligent, and hard-working individuals to help me get my new research program off the ground. Good science is not a solo pursuit, and I can say with whole-hearted confidence that my vision for the future of my program is much brighter than I could have imagined, just one year ago, specifically because of these incredible trainees.