Microbiology faculty members gain Burroughs Wellcome awards to support infectious disease research

By Deborah Wormser

Drs. Julie Pfeiffer and Neal Alto

Dr. Julie Pfeiffer and Dr. Neal Alto, both Assistant Professors of Microbiology, were selected as 2012 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an independent private foundation dedicated to advancing the biomedical sciences, chose 10 early-career scientists nationwide for the highly competitive awards, which provide research funding of $500,000 over five years. Only two institutions – UT Southwestern and Harvard – had two faculty members selected.

 “I am proud that our relatively small Department of Microbiology garnered 20 percent of the total awards given out this year in this early-investigator program,” said Dr. Michael Norgard, Chair of Microbiology.

Dr. Pfeiffer completed her graduate training in microbiology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, where she studied viral genetics and pathogenesis. She joined UTSW faculty in 2006. Her interests include the viruses that can cause polio, hepatitis C, and yellow fever. She will use the award to study how intestinal microbes enhance the infectivity of viruses such as polio that infect the gut and can spread to other body sites to cause disease.

Dr. Alto earned his doctorate in cell and developmental biology from the Oregon Health & Science University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego, prior to joining the UTSW faculty in 2007. Dr. Alto studies cross-species communication between bacterial pathogens and human cells. In one common scenario, bacteria inject virulence factors – also known as “effectors”– directly into the host cell that can chemically change or even mimic host-signaling enzymes. It is hoped that these investigations will clarify the cell behaviors that fight microbial infection and also lead to a wide range of human diseases.

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Dr. Alto is a Rita C. and William P. Clements, Jr. Scholar in Medical Research.

Dr. Norgard holds the B.B. Owen Distinguished Chair in Molecular Research.

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