Adjacent to the heart of UTHSC’s campus is the UT-Baptist Research Park. Constructed in 2009, the 30,315 square-foot facility hosts strains of naturally occurring infectious diseases such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, tularemia, streptococci, cholera, and Chlamydia infections. This biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3), Animal Biosafety Level 3 (ABSL-3), and Select Agent Facility, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, is the UTHSC Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL). Built using funds awarded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a partial match from UTHSC, the goal of the RBL is to enable drug discovery and translation of new antivirals, vaccines and therapeutics to protect the general population from infectious diseases and bioterrorism.
On July 1, the RBL received a new director. Colleen Jonsson, PhD, has spent nearly 30 years studying highly pathogenic human viruses and an additional 8 in plant infectious agents represented in more than 100 publications and 6 patents. She comes to UTHSC from the University of Tennessee- Knoxville where she was the Director of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and Beaman Distinguished Professor of Microbiology. Previously, she served as Director of the Center for Predictive Medicine for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases among other roles at the University of Louisville. In addition, Dr. Jonsson has led the formation and command of teams in environmental surveys in humans and rodents in the USA, Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay throughout her career.
She got her start as a plant biologist after veering away from her dreams of becoming an artist at age 18. Her first position was at Monsanto, first as a multi-year summer intern as an undergraduate, and then as a technician in the department engaged in genetic engineering of plants and bacteria to benefit agricultural crops. In graduate school, she continued to study plant pathogen-host interactions. Dr. Jonsson switched to virology as a postdoctoral fellow after deciding she wanted to study much simpler organisms. She then spent a decade studying how some types of viruses, called retroviruses, use an enzyme called integrase to plug in their genetic material into your DNA.
As Dr. Jonsson began her research as a new assistant professor, an outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome occurred in New Mexico in 1993. It first brings on flu-like symptoms, then constricted breathing, respiratory failure and, sometimes death. Dr. Jonsson’s curiosity surrounding hantaviruses steered her into field research in Honduras, Paraguay and Brazil.
In her own words, Dr. Jonsson’s work up to this point has focused on “viral and host determinates of disease caused by pathogens; initially in plants and then humans. I’m very interested in answering the questions how does disease progress, how does it heal, and how does it differ between very similar strains. I’m fascinated by how complex even simple life forms are and find myself compelled to learn more.”
As the new RBL Director, Dr. Jonsson is aiming to use her previous experiences to propel the UTHSC RBL and campus forward.
“As a Director, I’ve enjoyed being able to connect different faculty to new collaborators, creating new networks of people working on different problems,” Jonsson said. “Another goal is to work with UTHSC faculty to identify areas of multidisciplinary interest in terms of solving larger problems in infectious disease research. By converging disciplines, we can create synergy around a topic which hopefully leads to new perspectives and solutions.”
At UTHSC, Dr. Jonsson is also taking on the roles of Endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence and Professor. She is most excited about building collaborative relationships with others at UTHSC and working with students in this role.
“Teaching influences lives and opens up new perspectives,” Jonsson said. “I enjoy the process of watching students learn and discover new information on the complex problems we are trying to solve. In all my endeavors, my principal achievement has been being part of the scientific maturation process of the students I have trained as undergraduates, graduates and postdoctoral fellows.”
Outlined in the Operational Strategic Plan for Re- search are six Areas of Excellence and three Focus Areas. Woven throughout several of these Areas of Excellence and Focus Areas is the need for dedicated resources focused on infectious disease re- search and the development of new treatments. At UTHSC, Dr. Jonsson has also been named Director of a soon-to-be-established Institute for the Study of Host-Pathogen Systems (ISHPS). The proposed Institute will “synergize infectious disease research among an interdisciplinary group of faculty across the UTHSC enterprise” according to the business concept written by Dr. Jonsson. ISHPS will be centered on the model of Convergence Research and aims to build new relationships across departments and colleges focused on pathogen research critical to the development of new treatments and diagnostic tools.
“The Convergence approach requires collaboration between research groups but, even more so, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches to problem-solving and the merging of technologies, processes and devices,” Jonsson said. “A Convergence approach in infectious disease research will not only augment publications, funding and national recognition, but provide essential interactions that will strengthen the foundations of infectious disease research for generations of faculty and students to come.”
One of Dr. Jonsson’s first steps in creating a successful Institute for the Study of Host-Pathogen Systems is to meet with existing faculty and identify needs.
“I want to learn about their strengths, areas for improvement, and what they are excited for,” she said. “From there, I can develop our roadmap to success.
Through this experience, I hope to foster collaborative relationships and deepen existing ones with both junior and senior faculty.”
By creating a new UTHSC Institute focused on infectious disease research and the development of new treatments Dr. Jonsson is hoping this will change the general enthusiasm for drug discovery and development on campus. Her background both inside the lab and out has made her an ideal individual to take on the role of ISHPS Director.
“My past experience unifying efforts and creating drug discovery programs at both Southern Research Institute from 2003-08 and at the University of Louisville from 2008-present has given me the background to make ISHPS successful,” Jonsson said. “I am excited to take on these new roles and I look forward to many successful collaborative relationships.”
The Office of Research warmly welcomes Dr. Jonsson to the UTHSC family and eagerly await all the many successes she will have.