Campus News

Critical mass

van der Knaap
Esther van der Knaap

Presidential Extraordinary Research Faculty Hiring Initiative builds on UGA’s Signature Themes

Pejman Rohani’s research is inherently collaborative, and he says the number and diversity of infectious disease researchers at UGA creates an extraordinary environment for discovery.

“There’s probably only one other place in the United States that has the number of faculty who work in infectious diseases that UGA has,” said Rohani, one of five new faculty members who joined the university through the Presidential Extraordinary Research Faculty Hiring Initiative. “There’s a diversity of perspectives and approaches here, and I also think there’s strength in numbers—the critical mass is important for facilitating collaborations.”

Rohani, a professor who holds a joint appointment in the Odum School of Ecology and the infectious diseases department in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is working on grant-funded research projects related to pertussis (whooping cough), the mosquito-borne dengue fever, polio and avian influenza. His work uses mathematical and computational models to better predict and control disease outbreaks in humans and in wildlife.

The other Presidential Extraordinary Research Hires also align with the university’s Signature Research Themes of Inquiring and Innovating to Improve Human Health, Safeguarding and Sustaining Our World and Changing Lives Through the Land-Grant Mission.

Karen Burg is a bioengineer who joined the College of Veterinary Medicine as its Harbor Lights Chair. Seven of her inventions have been patented, one of which is the basis of a biomedical company that focuses on developing tools to help doctors quickly diagnose and combat breast cancer. Her research team also is finding ways to use normal, healthy cells to build replacement parts for bone or soft tissue repair.

Eric Harvill, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Medical Microbiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, studies respiratory pathogens such as the bacterium that causes whooping cough. His lab is working to understand the interactions between microbial pathogens and the immune system to lay the foundation for new vaccines and treatments for whooping cough and other communicable respiratory diseases.

Stephen Trent joined the College of Veterinary Medicine as the UGA Foundation Distinguished Professor in Infectious Diseases. His research explores how environmental stimuli promote changes in microbial structures found on the surface of pathogenic bacteria. Through this research, Trent is developing methods to use bacteria to improve the efficacy of vaccines for diseases such as influenza, pertussis, cholera and HPV.

Esther van der Knaap, a professor of horticulture in the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics, is exploring the regulation of fruit shape and size in tomatoes as well as in peppers. Much of her research focuses on the molecular genetic mechanisms of cell division and cell size underlying fruit formation, and her work seeks to help boost the yield and quality of fruit and vegetable crops for the agricultural industry.

Like Rohani, van der Knaap said she was drawn to UGA by opportunities to collaborate with existing faculty members who are doing related work.

“Many of my faculty colleagues here in the building are doing work that’s very similar to what I do, just on different systems with a different set of questions,” she said, noting that faculty members in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ Center for Applied Genetic Technologies have expertise in techniques such as genotyping and microscopy. “That not only benefits my research program, but also provides opportunities for graduate students and postdocs.”

UGA President Jere W. Morehead and Provost Pamela Whitten emphasized that recruiting and retaining faculty members remain a key priority, with a Presidential Informatics Hiring Initiative currently underway to bring multiple faculty members to campus whose research has implications for health, cybersecurity and a number of other fields.

“We have attracted through recent hiring initiatives some of the nation’s leading scholars and scientists to the University of Georgia,” Morehead said. “As the institution’s research capacity expands so does our capacity to make a positive difference on the world around us.”