My research program focuses on understanding and managing fungal diseases. We primarily study Candida albicans, an opportunistic pathogen and the most prevalent fungal pathogen of humans. It is responsible for common clinical problems including oral thrush and vaginitis, but can also lead to life-threatening systematic infections in immunocompromised individuals such as AIDS patients, resulting in 30-50% mortality rates. The estimated annual cost of treating nosocomial Candida infections exceeds $1 billion per year. We have developed an in vivo infection system using Caenorhabditis elegans as a model host that monitors the entire disease process from initial colonization to death. Facets of the innate immune response, which serves as the primary line of defense against fungal pathogens, is conserved between C. elegans and humans. Our efforts are focused on understanding how genomic and genetic changes affect phenotypes that contribute to fitness. These beneficial alterations can be fixed in the population and drive evolution of a benign commensal to a deadly pathogen. We have already applied our versatile assay to: identify novel virulence factors; uncover host defense mechanisms; and identify small molecules with anti-fungal properties. In the classroom I facilitate learning by relating course content to the global impact of Biology. I am engaged in the curriculum at all instructional levels from Intro to Biology to Advanced Molecular Genetics, and use of model experimental systems at the graduate level. I enjoy mentoring and working with doctoral, master, and undergraduate students in the lab where we employ a myriad of molecular, genetic, genomic, biochemical approaches to understand fungal pathogenesis.
Professional Highlights & Honors
Worcester News Tonight covered a forum held at WPI on the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR.
The Worcester Business Journal covered a WPI forum on the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. Noted in the article were: Dean, Arts and Sciences, Jean King; Assistant Professor, Social Science, Patricia Stapleton; Associate Professor, Humanities and Arts Bethel Eddy; Associate Professor, Biology and Biotechnology, Rita Rao; and Associate Teaching Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Destin Heilman.