July 2021 – This summer, we’re spending time in office hours with some of Drew University’s amazing faculty to learn about what interests and inspires them and their research.
Today, we’re talking with Brianne Barker, Associate Professor of Biology.
What’s something in your field that fascinates you?
I am fascinated by the interactions between viruses and the immune system—how those interactions lead to disease, how the partners evolve over time, and how we can modify them with medications and vaccines.
Tell us more.
Immune responses are a bit like Goldilocks: it is a problem if you have too much and it is a problem if you have too little. I am intrigued by the balance between having enough of a response to get rid of a virus while keeping that response in check in order to avoid immunopathology. How do we detect the virus in the first place and how do we regulate the response to keep it at the right level?
Why does this interest you so much?
Immunology is endlessly fascinating. Our body identifies invaders based on small biochemical differences between microbial cells and our cells. Viruses are particularly sneaky because they use our cells for so many parts of their life. Viruses evolve so rapidly that they can change the parts that are detected quickly. Many of the mechanisms that destroy viruses and infected cells are also damaging to the rest of our body if they are activated at the wrong time or in excess. We spend most of our time being pretty healthy, so our immune system has to be able to coordinate all of this, but how? Why does it go wrong? How can we use that knowledge to influence the responses?
How do you talk about this with students?
These ideas permeate all of my courses. We focus on the virus side in Virology and Microbiology, and the host cell side in Immunology and we take a step back and look at the big picture in Emerging Infectious Disease. The project that students explore in the Immunology lab specifically looks at the way we regulate immune responses. The students who I mentor in the research lab also work on understanding how we detect viruses and regulate this process.