Scientist Spotlight: Alexis Kaushansky, PhD

1. What is your research focus?

My work focuses on how the human body responds to infection. More specifically, I investigate how the liver responds to malaria parasite infection. We ask what the parasite needs from the person it has infected, and then take away those needs with drugs. This is a really unique way of thinking about eliminating disease since most drugs target the parasite directly. This approach is also very effective since the malaria parasite has specific needs of the person it has infected. It might even give us an approach to fight several infectious diseases, which share common requirements of their human host, with a single drug.

2. Why/when did you decide to be a scientist?

I knew I was going to be a scientist when I spent the summer in a lab while in undergrad. The mental gymnastics of designing an experiment to answer a question was, and remains, one of my absolute favorite things to do. Even better than experimental design, is completing the experiment and being the first person in the world to know the answer. To me, this is an unmatched experience. Growing up, I loved math and politics. And, for a time before graduate school, I worked on a presidential campaign. I have always known that I wanted to work on something that really impacted people and affected some level of change worldwide. I believe that the burden of infectious disease impacts nearly every social issue. Being able to merge the quantitative approaches I was initially attracted to in math class with investigating diseases that impact people worldwide is a privilege that I am incredibly grateful for.

3. When was your first moment (the first big discovery you had, the most significant discovery in your career, the time you realized all of the hard work was worth it, etc.)?

My first big discovery at the Center was in 2011. We were working on characterizing how the malaria parasite changes the liver where it must survive and even thrive in order to progress to causing disease. We knew a lot of the changes that happened, but we had no idea if any of these changes were important, or if reversing these changes could give us a new way of getting rid of malaria, before it causes disease. We were on a tight grant deadline, and wanted one more piece of data to include in our application. The malaria parasite has a very complex life cycle, so it was particularly difficult to time the data under the deadline constraints. I finished the experiment at 2:30 AM, and then headed to the microscope to count parasites. To my great surprise I saw 95% of all malaria parasites were killed when we didn’t allow the parasite to make the changes in the liver that it needed. The changes we had observed were even more important to the parasite than we could have ever guessed! I wanted to tell everyone! But, it had to wait until morning.

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