As part of the Microbial Systems Initiative strategic hiring plan, we are pleased to introduce new faculty in the Departments of Animal Sciences, Biochemistry, Kinesiology and Community Health, Microbiology, Pathobiology, and Statistics, who will contribute and benefit from Illinois' rich microbial systems research environment.
Dr. Jacob Allen is joining the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health as an assistant professor. He received his masters from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013 and PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2017. During his PhD, he studied the role of exercise in modifying the gut microbiota and its metabolites. This work included the first study to show exercise training modifies the human gut microbiota. His postdoctoral work at Nationwide Children’s Hospital primarily focused on understanding how psychological stress modifies microbe-host interactions in ways that predispose enteric infection and bowel disease. In addition to stress and exercise, his studies have also detailed how interventions targeting the microbiome, such as prebiotics (i.e. dietary fiber) and probiotics (i.e. live microorganisms), modify microbial communities and metabolite production in ways that attenuate immune reactivity and promote health. Dr. Allen’s research program at Illinois will concentrate on specific environmental interventions and conditions—1. Exercise 2. Psychological Stress and 3. Diet—that influence gut microbial communities and metabolite production during both homeostatic and pathological disease states. Ultimately, his aim is to provide a new perspective on how environmental conditions interact to modify the gut microbiota, with the ultimate goal of leveraging this knowledge to improve human health.
Dr. Adrienne Antonson begins her position as assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences in January 2021. She uses translational animal models to investigate inflammatory and neurodevelopmental origins of behavioral abnormalities and mental health disorders. Focusing on the prenatal period as a critical developmental window, she has demonstrated that maternal insults such as viral infection and psychological stress during pregnancy alter neuroimmune signatures in the offspring brain, leading to disrupted behaviors. Dr. Antonson’s central research focus is investigating exogenous and endogenous signals, deriving from prenatal maternal immune activation, that shift the function of fetal microglial cells, the resident brain macrophage, and subsequently disrupt microglial-mediated neurodevelopment. Her work also hypothesizes that downstream perturbations of the maternal microbiome lead to translocation of microbes to fetal tissues, propagating detrimental inflammatory signaling in utero. Her future work will continue to dissect potential aberrant communication pathways between the maternal microbiome and the fetal brain, using mouse and swine models of prenatal insult. Dr. Antonson completed her PhD in Animal Sciences, Immunophysiology and Behavior, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2018. She currently works as a postdoctoral fellow at The Ohio State University at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.
Dr. Christopher Gaulke is joining the Department of Pathobiology as an assistant professor. He has over a decade of experience integrating diverse data to uncover molecular mechanisms underpinning host-microbe interactions. He earned his PhD with Dr. Satya Dandekar at the University of California, Davis, characterizing the mechanisms through which HIV infection disrupts gut immune function and immune responses to commensal microbes. Dr. Gaulke went on to join Dr. Thomas Sharpton’s laboratory at Oregon State University as a postdoctoral research associate where he used whole genome shotgun metagenomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics to identify environmental exposures that modify host-microbiota interactions. At Illinois, Dr. Gaulke’s lab will use diverse molecular, bioinformatic, and statistical tools to define the biochemical mechanisms through which gut microbiota modulate the effects of nutritional, infectious, and chemical exposures on vertebrate physiology. The Gaulke lab will leverage this knowledge to develop methods to mitigate the impact of these exposures on human and animal health by manipulating the microbiome and characterizing microbial natural products.
Dr. Asma Hatoum-Aslan is joining the Department of Microbiology as an assistant professor. She received her PhD in biochemistry from Cornell University and completed her postdoctoral training at the Rockefeller University. Her research program aims to advance the basic mechanistic knowledge of how bacteria and their viruses (known as phages) interact and explore new paradigms that question fundamental assumptions regarding bacterial immunity. Additionally, basic insights into bacterial immune systems such as CRISPR-Cas and the phage-encoded mechanisms that counter them are synergistically applied to discover and engineer new phages as a basis for alternative treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections. Using Staphylococcus epidermidis and its phages as a model host-virus system, recent research in the Hatoum-Aslan lab has revealed new mechanisms of the CRISPR-Cas10 immune pathway and discovered a novel anti-phage defense system conserved in diverse bacteria. Her team is also developing new phage-based therapeutics with diagnostic capabilities along with mechanisms to deliver them to the site of an infection. Future work will continue to leverage basic findings to develop novel biotechnologies in this area. Dr. Hatoum-Aslan has also been engaged in integrated educational activities that provide research experiences and active learning opportunities for underrepresented groups in STEM disciplines.
Dr. Pamela Martinez joins the Department of Microbiolgy and the Department of Statistics as an assistant professor. She completed her PhD in Ecology and Evolution from The University of Chicago and she is currently a postdoctoral research fellow studying the population dynamics of different pathogens at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard University. Her research lies at the intersection of ecology and the evolution of microorganisms to better understand how immunological and evolutionary processes influence the emergence and maintenance of pathogen diversity. As a new faculty at Illinois, Dr. Martinez will continue developing the interface between dynamics based on ecological/epidemiological processes and population genetics theories. She will also continue her research to further understand the impact of environmental and climatic factors on the transmission of infectious diseases, as well as the role of microbial diversity on the population dynamics of human pathogens.
Dr. Paola Mera joins the faculty of the Department of Microbiology as an assistant professor. She brings with her a passion for uncovering the mechanistic processes that guide cell cycle regulation. Using the model system Caulobacter crescentus, she and her team have found new connections explaining some of the communicative processes guiding the onset of replication and segregation of the chromosome. Dr. Mera began her journey into microbial systems at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in Jorge Escalante’s lab where she and her collaborators identified mechanistic details of a fascinating communication between adenosyl transferases and their substrate to accomplish a seemingly impossible intermediate redox reaction. As a postdoctoral fellow with Lucy Shapiro at Stanford University, she expanded the scale of her work to communicative processes that temporally coordinate essential events in the cell cycle. As an independent investigator at New Mexico State University, Dr. Mera has focused on creating a diverse and productive lab working primarily with undergraduate students. At Illinois, she is excited to continue uncovering details of how different events in the cell cycle are interconnected and how environmental inputs are fused into the communicative network responsible for orchestrating the progression of the cell cycle.
Dr. Joseph Sanfilippo is joining the Department of Biochemistry as an assistant professor. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011. After completing his graduate studies at Indiana University-Bloomington in 2016, Dr. Sanfilippo became a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Zemer Gitai at Princeton University, where he pioneered the study of the rheosensing in the human pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Dr. Sanfilippo’s research focuses on the mechanobiology of bacteria. His lab will study how cells sense and respond to mechanical stimuli such as shear flow, using genetic, biochemical, biophysical and engineering approaches. Using a multidisciplinary toolkit, he and his lab aim to understand problems such as mechanosensation, host colonization, and cellular adhesion in flow. Dr. Sanfilippo will be looking for students from a broad range of scientific backgrounds and is excited to discuss collaborations with faculty across campus.
Dr. Shulei Wang is an incoming assistant professor in Department of Statistics. He received his PhD in Statistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2018 and spent two years as a postdoc researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interest is to develop novel statistical methodology and scalable computational tools to analyze large-scale and complex biomedical data, with goals of providing insight for the complex biological systems. Dr. Wang’s past research primarily strives to apply rigorous statistical thinking to developing methods to solve problems arising from the analysis of the human microbiome and microscopic imaging data. At Illinois, he plans to continue developing statistical methods that are able to incorporate evolution information of microbial system, e.g. phylogenetic tree structure, into analysis, and multi-omics data analysis tools that integrate the microbiome data and data acquired from host, such as genome, transcriptome, cytometry and imaging data. Dr. Wang is very excited to become a part of the great microbial science research community at Illinois and looks forward to working with excellent researchers across campus.
Dr. Nicholas Wu joins the Department of Biochemistry as an assistant professor. His long-term research interests focus on the driving forces and functional constraints of virus evolution, using multidisciplinary approaches involving molecular virology, evolutionary biology, biochemistry, bioinformatics, and structural biology. During his PhD studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he has developed a high-throughput mutational fitness-profiling platform for measuring the fitness effect of a large number of viral mutants in parallel. During his postdoctoral studies at Scripps Research, he has further expanded his research to structural biology of viral proteins and antibodies, using both X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy. Through integrating high-throughput mutational analysis and structural biology, Dr. Wu has detailed the intimate relationship between the evolution of the influenza receptor binding mechanism and antigenic drift. He has also characterized the structural basis for the low effectiveness of the seasonal influenza vaccine, as well as the broadly neutralizing antibody response to influenza virus. While the main focus of his research has been on influenza virus, he occasionally works on other viruses such as HIV and HCV. Recently, Dr. Wu has also been studying SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus of COVID-19 pandemic. With the support of K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award from NIH, his lab at Illinois will continue investigating different evolutionary pressures on viruses.