March 25, 2021 11:45 AM

Military Microbiologists With a Surprising Connection

Meet the University of Michigan grads on the frontlines of the pandemic working to protect the nation's military.

grey navy ship in water
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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak ripped through the ranks of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, with more than 1,200 sailors infected and one death. The outbreak on the nuclear powered ship would portend of the virus’ rapid spread among the general population worldwide, providing an early glimpse into the ease of transmission and the vital importance of public health interventions such as mask wearing and social distancing.

“There’s a common adage in the military that most risks are from disease and non-battle injuries,” says Nathan Fisher, Ph.D., microbiologist and Major in U.S. Army’s Central Command. “But this pandemic has made people realize we are accepting a lot of risk when we don’t take infectious disease seriously.”

Military microbiologists are on the literal frontlines of the battle to keep military personnel healthy and mission ready. And several of the leading military-based researchers, whose work has taken on new importance during the coronavirus pandemic, have something intriguing in common: they all graduated from the University of Michigan School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Joining forces

Fisher, who is currently stationed on a base in Kuwait, was emailing several of his fellow microbiologists, including Matthew Kasper, Ph.D., a legislative liaison at U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, and Clarise Starr, Ph.D., Deputy Division Chief at the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Applied Technology and Genomics Division within the Air Force Research Laboratory, when their other connection dawned on him.

“I realized that I know all of these people because of grad school and now we’re all involved in the military’s COVID-19 response,” he says. “I don’t know how that happened.”

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One of the reasons likely lies in the strength and diversity of research at U-M.

A graduate student in the early 2000s, Fisher did a rotation in the lab of Oveta Fuller, Ph.D., finishing up in the lab of Phil Hanna, Ph.D., studying the bacterium that causes anthrax.

Microbiology and national security came together during the 2001 anthrax attacks, when the deadly bacteria were sent through the U.S mail, leading to the deaths of five people. These attacks provided new relevance for Fisher’s ongoing work into how anthrax spores recognize a host and cause disease. Immediately upon graduation, took that knowledge straight to the Army.

Similarly, fellow alumnus Clarise Starr was drawn in by the allure of working with biodefense threats. “I was always interested in infectious diseases, and especially those viruses that had to be kept in high containment,” she says. While at U-M, she worked in the lab of Cary Engleberg, Ph.D., and in a clinical microbiology lab at the hospital.

“It was here that I really got an eye-opening experience about how we detect pathogens at the clinical level. At that time, there was a push to incorporate molecular technologies (looking for pathogens at the DNA/RNA level) in the lab and I spent a couple of years there to help spin some of those tests up.”

Starr’s expertise set the groundwork for her work with the Air Force, where she has been using next generation sequencing as a method for detecting the unknown and new and emerging pathogens. Says Starr, “We were heavily involved in the tracking of the SARS-CoV-2 virus over a year ago, and we are the primary depositors of the SARS-CoV-2 sequences from the Department of Defense.”

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Matthew Kasper’s graduate work focused on a different virus that, in the early 80s, also began as a mysterious pandemic: HIV. While working in the lab of Kathy Collins, Ph.D., Kasper studied how the HIV protein Nef allowed infected cells to evade the immune system’s T cells. Kasper, who has had an extensive career with infectious disease research and was lead author on the paper describing the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt outbreak in the New England Journal of Medicine, has just completed his assignment managing Navy Medicine’s relationship with Congress and is now working at the Naval Medical Research Center.

Each researcher credits an adventurous spirit, an open mind, and their scientific training at U-M for their unique career path. 

“I would challenge trainees to look beyond the basic discovery of science. If a professorship doesn’t feel like your cup of tea, there are many positions that we need PhDs in,” says Starr. “There is a big gap in applied sciences—how to upgrade some of the systems that are currently in place. We need PhDs in program management and in policy as well. We need inventors and the implementers of the inventions.”

And, they all stress, the next pandemic is not a matter of if but when. Their current work within the military to keep our country safe has broad applicability for the field of microbiology as a whole.

Paper cited: “An Outbreak of Covid-19 on an Aircraft Carrier,” New England Journal of Medicine. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2019375