Human cytomegalovirus persists in the majority of the population worldwide and is the leading cause of infectious disease-related birth defects. Dr. Felicia Goodrum, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine, cancer biology, genetics, and molecular and cellular biology, discusses her work on this public health concern. She also shares how she “infects” others with a love for science through science communication and public outreach. The self-proclaimed lifelong learner also talks about the importance of a two-way mentorship relationship.
Virus pun intended, when did you get the science bug?
It was in sixth grade when I had a teacher that made science really exciting, and it just grew from there.
Getting the science bug needs to happen at a very early stage. As a country, we need to really improve our science education and engagement, and especially for kids that don't have easy access to really understand what the scientific endeavor is and what it can offer.
When I went to college, I became a biology major. I went to graduate school because as a biology major, there was nothing I could really do that excited me just with a bachelor's degree in biology. I decided to apply to graduate school, not knowing a lot about what research was because at that time, undergraduate research was not nearly as much of a thing as it is now.
Within two weeks of being in graduate school, I knew research was it for me. I really fell in love with the idea that you get to go into a lab and ask a question that has never really been asked and seek an answer through experimentation.
That still is the most exciting thing to me and what I hope to infect everybody with that enters my lab.
I appreciate your ability to shift your discussions about science to the group that you're talking with. Talk about the key elements towards identifying your audience and how you communicate effectively.
Science plays such an important role in society, whether it's the medicine we take, the cars we drive, the way we conserve energy, or the food that we eat. There's nothing in your daily life that science hasn't impacted.
We as researchers truly work for the citizens of this country. We are paid by their tax dollars to do the science that they need for their lives, so it’s critical that we're able to reach and talk with those people. You can very quickly get lost in the weeds of scientific jargon and technical language. That's a language that has evolved amongst scientists so that we can rapidly communicate ideas and observations that we're seeing, but we can't talk to everybody like that because it's very off-putting. We also can't talk as if we have all the answers.
You have to meet people where they are and try to communicate what it is that we are doing for each person as a citizen of the United States, and what we are doing with our tax dollars to make their lives better. It's an important but not easy art, but I think it's something that each of us needs to learn. It's a very big commitment I've taken on and I really encourage everybody to, as well, because if the public doesn't understand what we're doing as scientists, then we're not doing our jobs because that needs to be an equal part of it.
On the note of communicating your science, tell us about your research on cytomegalovirus.
Cyto means cell and megalo means big, but “CMV” is much easier.
CMV is a herpes virus. There are nine herpes viruses that infect humans, and one of them, up to 99% of the population worldwide is infected with this virus. Most people don't know it. We are usually infected as children, and we carry it with us our whole lives. The virus is so highly evolved with us that it really knows our biology far better than we do. It's nicely become part of us, and then we serve as a vector to spread the virus so it can infect more people and survive.
All herpes viruses can establish this lifelong infection, so once you're infected, herpes is forever, and you always carry that virus. What my lab is really interested in studying is how that happens, because with many viruses, like the flu or the common cold, you get infected, and they make you really sick. Then your immune system eventually clears that virus and your relationship with that virus is over until you encounter it again. But with CMV or any herpes virus, once you're infected, you're always infected, so that's really an evolutionary feat.
If you think about how amazing our immune systems, it’s incredible this virus can actually evade immune clearance. We want to understand the very intricate and complex relationship that CMV has with the human host.
CMV is known for its latency, where it can lay dormant in one's body and then be triggered by certain elements. Can you explain latency and how the virus can be reactivated?
Latency is the ability of the virus to maintain a dormant or quiescent state. Stresses or the loss of immune surveillance will trigger the virus to reactivate, if you don't have a robust immune system when it reactivates, then the virus can cause disease.
This is particularly an issue in people who are immunocompromised. The CMV was huge in the AIDS epidemic because CMV was causing a pneumonia that was killing a large number of people who were infected with HIV. As they became more immuno-suppressed, CMV caused more problems. To this day, it’s still a very important problem in transplant patients who have to undergo some sort of immunosuppression in order to accept a transplanted organ or stem cells.
The other place where this virus is really devastating is in the context of congenital infection. CMV is the leading cause of birth defects - it can lead to mild or severe hearing loss and mild to severe cognitive deficits.
I feel like this information is not heavily discussed – why is that, in your opinion?
I think it’s because the virus doesn't typically cause disease in healthy people. It is something that we just carry along with us, but there are costs as well as benefits to having a virus like this persist within us, because it does impact our biology.
For example, there have been scientific findings that the persistence of CMV in people can lead to enhanced responses to vaccines like the annual flu vaccine. There are some possible benefits in young, healthy people, but maybe those benefits are lost as people age, and it can contribute to pathologies, for example, in older individuals.
Specifically in my lab, we really want to understand how the virus has hardwired itself into our biology. It's persisting in cells, and it must be able to sense the environment to know when to stay quiet or when to reactivate and make more virus to spread. To do that, it's basically monitoring the molecular messengers that are running around inside us, dictating when a cell should divide or when a cell should be sensing stress. And the virus has found ways to monitor that and then respond to those signals as if it were really part of us.
You've had a lot of students and postdocs come through your lab. Talk about your mentorship plan, how you identify people that have the qualities that you're looking for, and how you encourage them to pursue science.
That's a big question. It's a really important one though, because it's why I'm an academic scientist. In academic science, part of that mission is training the next generation of scientists. It is truly the greatest love of my day to interact with these young scientists and watch them develop their own love of discovery, being able to ask those questions that nobody has ever asked and find the answers. It is such a special moment when you're sitting with a student and they have a discovery that you realize that you're the only two people on the planet that actually this bit of information right now.
The fit of an individual to a lab is really important. I like to identify people that are out of the box thinkers. They may be diamonds in the rough - they may not come with the best resume or CV, but they have a spark. They have an energy for discovery, and they're excited about science, and they want to really contribute. They have a tenacity that you need to persevere in science with a lot of failure.
How has mentorship played a large role in your life?
I had a lot of strong biochemistry and molecular biology mentors who just took a lot of interest in me.
I don't expect for people to leave science in the lab. Science is really something you've got to be thinking about when you're walking your dog, taking a shower, going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning. They can't leave science in the lab, and I also don't expect them to leave their personal lives at home. Science is a lifestyle. It's not a job. It's hardly even a career. People have to be willing to live it, drink it, breathe it, because it is a whole body, whole person endeavor.
I really want to know that whole person and engage every bit of them because it is the intangibles that they did not learn in school that they're going to bring to science that are going to make it really valuable. Finding that fit and mentor is so important. It is very important that students approach this with a very open mind and try not to put up too many boundaries far too often.
I went to graduate school thinking I had a very open mind, but there was only one thing I didn't want to study – viruses. One of my college professors actually sat down with me, flipped through the brochure for the graduate program I was going to apply to, and pointed out some people that she thought had really great research programs. I went to visit each of those faculty members, and one of the first people I met studied viruses. He captivated me immediately with how he was using these viruses to understand the cell. Within two weeks of being in his lab, I was completely taken by his mentorship style. We had a really a great connection around the way we saw science, and over those five years of being in his laboratory, we both fell in love with the virus.
We both proudly call ourselves virologists now.
We are entering our 20th year as an Institute. What has BIO5 meant to you while you’ve been with us?
It's been a scientific home, which I think as a virologist has been particularly fruitful because with a complex virus like CMV, you never know where it's going to take you. Part of my approach to science is that we do not ask the questions that we have the tools to answer. We ask the questions that need to be asked. In doing that, you don't know from day to day, where you are going to be. There are many things that my lab has done over these years of being at BIO5 that I would have never planned to do or sought to do, but we just follow the virus and that's where it took us.
You have to be able to find people around you that have the tools that allow you to then address this new question. BIO5 has been great for that because it is interdisciplinary. There are no boundaries as far as what defines what we do. There's been this amazing and critical support that BIO5 has offered, and these people make my science work. They make it so that I can come here and actually do the things that I'm supposed to do as a scientist to create, to get the grants, to discover the findings, to publish those findings. They make all that possible because they remove all the other barriers that naturally exist to doing this.
What’s something about you that people don't know about you?
I've been playing the cello for the past two years, but I had never before in my entire life played an instrument. I never had an interest. My grandmother who was born in 1901 has a master's degree in music. She had an entire music room in her home, and I think it was one of the saddest aspects that neither her children, nor her grandchildren, shared that passion for music. It's so hard, and it uses my brain in different ways, so I'm fully convinced that learning the cello is helping my science.