Colleen Jonsson, PhD, the new director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, is dedicated to creating networks of collaborators to identify and solve problems in infectious disease research.
“By converging disciplines, we can create synergy around a topic, which hopefully leads to new perspectives and solutions,” said Dr. Jonsson, who joined UTHSC in late 2017.
The 30,315-square-foot RBL, constructed in 2009, enables research on pathogens responsible for naturally occurring common and emerging infectious diseases, such as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, streptococci, influenza, West Nile, Zika, and equine encephalitic infections. 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.
Dr. Jonsson aims to use her experience to propel the UTHSC RBL and the campus forward. She has spent nearly 30 years studying highly pathogenic human viruses and an additional eight years studying plant infectious agents. Her work is represented in more than 100 publications and six patents.
Dr. Jonsson 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. Dr. Jonsson has led the formation and command of teams in environmental surveys in humans and rodents in the United States, Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Dr. Jonsson’s work 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 of how does disease progress, how does it heal, and how does it differ between very similar strains,” she said. “I’m fascinated by how complex even simple life forms are, and find myself compelled to learn more.”
At UTHSC, Dr. Jonsson is also taking on the roles of Endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology and professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry. She is most excited about building collaborative relationships at UTHSC and working with students.
“Teaching influences lives and opens up new perspectives,” Dr. 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 UTHSC Operational Strategic Plan for Research are six Areas of Excellence and three Focus Areas. Woven throughout the plan is the need for dedicated resources focused on infectious disease research and the development of new treatments. Dr. Jonsson has also been named director of a soon-to-be-established Institute for the Study of Host-Pathogen Systems (ISHPS) at UTHSC. The institute will synergize infectious disease research among an interdisciplinary group of faculty across UTHSC, 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,” Dr. 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.”
Dr. Jonsson is hoping a new UTHSC institute focused on infectious disease research and the development of new treatments will enhance enthusiasm for drug discovery and development on campus.
“My past experience unifying efforts in multidisciplinary research and drug discovery programs has given me the background to make ISHPS successful,” Dr. Jonsson said. “I am excited to take on these new roles and I look forward to many successful collaborative relationships.”