Thirumala-Dev Kanneganti grew up seeing the effects of leprosy and polio in India. Now she runs a lab that studies why some cells resist disease and others succumb.
Thirumala-Devi Kanneganti, 44, is an immunologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
Q: What is your role at St. Jude?
A: I manage a group that conducts studies on mammalian cells to see why some resist disease and others are highly susceptible. We modify or remove immune genes and infect the cells with viruses, bacteria or fungi and try to determine why they live or die. My goal is to extrapolate what we learn and apply it to humans. I’m interested in the body’s innate immunity, its first line of defense against disease. I’d like to learn how changes in immune genes might lead to disease, which is critical to finding cures.
Q: How did you become interested in this field?
A: Walking to grade school in India, I’d see people with leprosy and polio begging on the side of the road. It was heartbreaking. Their families had abandoned them because of their illness. I decided at a young age that when I grew up, I would learn about why some people get diseases and others don’t to try and help.
Q: What was your path to this job?
A: I was highly motivated and became the first in my family to graduate from high school. After getting my Ph.D. in microbiology, I obtained a postdoctoral position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working on fungal genetics of plant pathogens, or the microorganisms that can cause disease. I completed two other postdocs. I learned what was needed to run a lab.
Q: What was a memorable study?
A: At Ohio State University, I studied the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine in the 1800s. We were able to identify some of the factors in late blight, the disease responsible, and determine how a plant can resist it.
Q: How do you manage the lab?
A: I have one-on-one meetings with my students, evaluate their data and make sure they’re asking the next big question. I try to keep our focus on finding cures. If I were in the lab, I could only do one experiment, but by training my doctoral students and postdoctoral scientists, I can do 20.
Q: What are some of your challenges?
A: Motivating students to prioritize their work and focus. There are just too many exciting questions to ask. Also, not to be discouraged when things fail. When you’re young, you want things to be easy. Science is truly not easy. You have to be passionate.
Q: How do you get approval for studies?
A: Every year I submit a progress report and plans for the coming year. A scientific advisory board and governing board at St. Jude oversee what we do. The governing board provides funding, and I’ve never yet been turned down for a study.