There’s nothing like some well-infected waterways to help inspire a career.
Growing up in California, Amanda Jamieson loved to use her microscope to look for amoebas in the water of a contaminated local creek. Her math teacher encouraged her love of science, too, signing her up in high school for summer internships in physics, engineering, and materials science labs at the University of California–Santa Barbara. The internships continued after she enrolled at Carleton College in Minnesota, but the projects with biological relevance captivated her the most.
Then one evening at Carleton, she found herself reliving the peculiar recreation of her youth.
“One of our first labs was with a microbiological ecosystem in a graduated cylinder and in the same lab we also had pond water,” Jamieson said. “This took me back to my childhood. So there I was with my lab partner, who apparently had the same fascination with small things in pond water. The entire lab was gone, and the professor said, ‘I need to go pick up my kids, but carry on,’ so we were just sitting in there looking at pond water.”
That fascination helped her decide to major in biology and in particular to focus on microbiology and immunology. Her thesis at Carleton dealt with the immune system of the eye.
Today, Jamieson seems to be in a perfect place, as a new assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Brown. Even though the immune system’s charge is to fend off microbes, surprisingly few universities retain single departments that keep studies of the attackers and the defenders together.
“It used to be that immunology and microbiology were always together but they both became so complex they diverged,” Jamieson said. “But I’m really interested in both, so having a department that really does have both microbiology and immunology in it is very appealing.”
The dual interests of the department were also a good fit for Jamieson’s husband Chris de Graffenried, a microbiologist working on African trypanasomes (sleeping sickness parasites), who is coming to Brown on a research track.
Life and death science
Jamieson’s graduate training in immunology began in exciting times in the field. When she enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of California–Berkeley in 1998, the importance of “natural killer” cells had only begun to be understood. In her thesis work in the lab of David Raulet, she helped discover a molecular mechanism by which the body could spring these vicious guard dogs of the immune system into action.
Of course the immune system’s response to infection is not only a matter of life and death for microbes, but also for patients. As a postdoctoral scholar with Ruslan Medzhitov at Yale University School of Medicine and later at the University of Vienna, Jamieson tackled an especially complex and important study: the frustratingly mysterious mortality that would arise from infection by the flu virus followed by the Legionella pneumophila bacterium. Dual infection would seem intuitively to be bad news, but this combination was particularly vexing. Doctors and scientists had struggled to understand why patients were so vulnerable. (Mice co-infected by flu and then legionella in the lab die 100 percent of the time within a week.)
During five years (on two continents) Jamieson led a series of experiments to figure out how the team of flu and legionella was able to become so potent. She and her co-authors were able to rule out impaired resistance to the invaders or a suppressed immune response (which is the usual case in flu-bacterial coinfection). They also showed the damage was not due to an overzealous immune response. Instead the answer was that the lung suffers fatal tissue damage that it cannot repair. Happily, in the lab when Jamieson’s team administered tissue-repairing growth factors, they could improve survival. The results appeared in the June 7 issue of the journal Science.
A new lab
Less than a month later, Jamieson started at Brown, where she said her lab will continue to focus on the lung. She’ll study the microbes it must combat, the microbes that it hosts (the lung’s so-called “microbiome”), environmental contaminants that can harm it, and the byplay of all three.
She’ll continue collaborations from Vienna, but has also begun to strike up collaborations at Brown, for instance with pulmonary researcher Elizabeth Harrington, associate professor of medicine (research).
And Brown offers not only collaborators, but also undergraduate students. While she won’t teach this year, she said she is looking forward to working with students.
So here’s a heads-up for those future students: Don’t be surprised if there is a lab activity involving pond water and a microscope. You’ll love it so much, you might even want to stay late.