The University of Kentucky College of Medicine recently welcomed Ilhem Messaoudi, PhD, as the new chair of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics. She shares more about her work to better understand viruses and the wide range of factors affecting the immune system. She also shares how her research career led her to UK.

Q: Why did you pursue a career in research?

A: Growing up my hero was Louis Pasteur. I dreamed of becoming a microbiologist and working as a scientist at one of the Pasteur Institutes. This aspiration came from watching my aunt, who was paraplegic as a result of a polio infection, struggle with simple everyday tasks. I was fascinated by the idea that there were organisms that we could not see with the naked eye, yet they caused debilitating diseases. I wanted to study microbes, understand how they caused disease, and help develop vaccines to prevent them.

My family lived throughout the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa so I always had a front row seat to the devastation caused by infectious diseases, and this only cemented my desire to pursue a PhD and become a microbiologist/immunologist (although I didn't know those words back then.)

Q: What drew you to UK?

A: I was reflecting on my career and thinking about other ways that I can further research and education. A colleague of mine (Dr. Sturgill) alerted me to the search for department chair at the UK College of Medicine. After having an opportunity to speak with additional colleagues, it became clear that UK was a hidden gem: an institution with an impressive growth trajectory, home to many highly accomplished investigators, and research priority areas aligned with my research interests. At the same time, there is still room to grow. For instance, one of my goals is to make infectious diseases the next priority research area.

UK provided an opportunity for both myself and my husband to have very fulfilling careers in academic medicine and research.

Q: What research projects are you currently working on?

A: My group is engaged in many research projects – it’s hard to choose a specific one. (It’s like choosing amongst your kids!) Some of the work we are doing involves understanding how emerging viruses such as Ebola viruses and SARS-CoV-2 cause devastating diseases and overwhelm the immune system. We are also interested in understanding how maternal health impacts the development and function of the immune system of the next generation. Another area of emphasis for us is how alcohol abuse interferes with proper function of the immune system. Finally, how advanced age reduces immune competence and increases susceptibility to infection. I will be presenting some of our work on SARS-CoV-2 during Infectious Diseases Research Day (Nov. 16, 2021) so if you are interested, please sign up!

Q: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of work?

A: I really enjoy reading, hiking, cooking, and photography. I also love spending time with my family – I have two young kids – and friends.

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