Great Expectations

The synthesis of world-class research and collegiality—plus brand-new lab space—augur a bright future for Tufts microbiology

John Leong in the lab

Every morning for two weeks after he arrived as the new chair of molecular biology, John Leong and the members of his lab found food in the refrigerator—scones and strudels and breakfast crepes left by colleagues to welcome the newcomers.

That’s how things are done in the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Tufts School of Medicine. Leong arrived from the University of Massachusetts Medical School last fall to lead a department whose fame for intellectual star power is matched by its reputation for collegiality.

“The place is special, I think,” says the new chair, a former postdoctoral fellow in the department who studied with Professor Ralph Isberg. “The intellectual resources are huge, but the egos aren’t big, so the sense of community is strong.”

The department is on the move. Two floors in the Arnold Building on the health sciences campus are being renovated for lab space, with a third floor planned, to create state-of-the-art research facilities. As part of the renovation, Tufts has just announced that it will seek approval from the City of Boston and the Boston Public Health Commission to build and operate a biosafety level-3 laboratory on the eighth floor to focus on the study of tuberculosis. (Tufts Medical School is currently the only medical school in Massachusetts without such a lab.) With new leadership in place, five more scientists will be hired to bring the department to 16 members.

With the new recruits, a department widely known for its achievements in teaching and research—it is home to two Howard Hughes investigators (Isberg and Professor Andrew Camilli) and two members of the National Academy of Sciences (Isberg and Professor John Coffin)—will be getting stronger and advancing important work to tame diseases that afflict millions of people around the globe.

“The Department of Microbiology has long been a star department at the medical school,” says Harris Berman, the school’s dean. “Since many of the department members are senior scientists, we saw the need for new leadership to shape the department for the 21st century to match the infectious-disease challenges of our times.”

Abraham “Linc” Sonenshein, professor and former acting chair, whose work on heat-resistant vaccines for children in the world’s poorest and most remote places was funded by a $5 million grant from the Gates Foundation, offers a longtime faculty member’s perspective on the department’s mini-renaissance: “John Leong is not only a world-renowned scientist but also a wonderful person whom we all have great confidence in as our leader,” he says. “His ability to hire five additional faculty members in the next few years will bring new energy, new ideas, new technologies and new opportunities for collaborative projects into the department and the university.”

How Bacteria Communicate

Leong’s lab focuses on infectious disease, studying how E. coli and Lyme disease bacteria communicate with—and have evolved to manipulate—human cells. “We seek to understand the molecular basis of that dialogue and try to interrupt the conversation,” he says.

For nearly a half-century, Tufts microbiologists have played a role in fighting some of the world’s nastiest diseases. Forty-five years ago Ted Park, the first department chair, discovered how penicillin kills bacteria. More recently, John Coffin, a virologist, figured out why HIV generates drug resistance so quickly—knowledge that informs current treatments for HIV/AIDS.

The planned biosafety lab would focus on innovations in treating tuberculosis. Despite the public perception that TB was conquered long ago, the bacterial infection continues to have devastating consequences in much of the developing world. Tuberculosis now infects a third of the entire human population, according to the World Health Organization, although 90 percent of those never contract the disease.

The goal, says Leong, is “a better understanding of how disease is caused, hopefully leading to strategies for prevention or therapeutic intervention.”

The reputation of microbiology at Tufts also comes from its strength as an incubator for the next generation of scientists. The department is nationally known for training doctoral and postdoctoral students, says Dan Portnoy, a professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology at the University of California at Berkeley. “Two of my very best doctoral students did their postdoctoral training at Tufts, and both raved about the department as a cohesive and very strong intellectual environment,” he notes. “There is a buzz about the department. Speaking for others in the microbiology community, we are very excited about its future.”

Shonna McBride, a postdoctoral research associate in the Sonenshein lab at Tufts, is researching the pathogen C. difficile, the potentially fatal gastrointestinal disease for which few treatments are available. The department “has been instrumental to my development as a scientist,” McBride says. “The faculty here are great scientists and great mentors. They represent some of the biggest names in the field, yet they are incredibly approachable and collaborative.”

Leong hopes the new resources being put into the department will make it an even more attractive destination for talented junior faculty. “This place has made history, and many of the people who made history are still here,” he says. “The plan is to recruit people who will make history in the future.

“I’m really excited to be here,” he continues. “This to me is an ideal chairmanship. Students are thought about a lot here. And that strong commitment to graduate education is accompanied by a sense of community. I consider Tufts micro a treasure.”

Mark Sullivan can be reached at


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