May 01, 2012

Michele Swanson, PhD: Scientist, athlete, foodie

Michele Swanson, PhD
What are you thinking about?

Our research is focused on how white blood cells recognize and fight infection. One topic my team and I are especially interested in is autophagy, a cell’s self-eating pathway. As a tool for our research, we use a bacterial pathogen – Legionella pneumophila. Basically, we’re interested in how cells recognize that they’ve been invaded, and then how the cell either destroys the invaders or commits suicide.

Why is this interesting to you?

Infectious disease research is a great way to apply genetics to analyze questions fundamental to cell biology and immunity. I’m interested in better understanding a white blood cell’s immediate defenses to infection.

What are the practical implications for health care?

Crohn’s disease is one example of where and how our research might be applied. Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that can be truly debilitating for patients. It can occur when an individual’s cells aren’t able either to recognize bacterial contaminants or to stimulate autophagy; mutations in these pathways predispose a person to Crohn’s disease. As we learn more about the underlying disease mechanism, it will open new strategies for intervention.

When you’re not working, what do you do?

I played competitive team sports through college, and now I enjoy golf and U-M sports. And good food. Some would say I’m a “foodie” – I enjoy shopping for food, preparing food for friends and family, eating it, and even simply reading about it.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

To get the best training you can at every stage of your career and to keep your eyes open for opportunities, because we can’t predict what the landscape will be in five or ten years.

What was the last book you read?

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater by Frank Bruni. “Round” in the title refers to Bruni being short, stout and chubby. The book is about his love/hate relationship with food and how it came to be through his loud and loving Italian family. Bruni had been the chief restaurant critic of The New York Times and is now a social and political critic there. His sharp insight and sharper writing are always engaging.

Who or what can’t you live without?

My children! They are a continuous source of pride and joy. My daughter, who’s been working in New York City since graduating from Yale, is now coming back to Ann Arbor to attend U-M Law School. I’m thrilled to know I’ll have a glimpse of what promises to be an interesting period in her life. My son will soon graduate from the University of Oregon, where he’s pursuing his interests in world religions, Buddhism, and of course the Oregon Ducks!

What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

My family spent a one-year sabbatical in Paris, home of the Pasteur Institute, when the kids were in 8th and 10th grades. It was a great experience for all of us; Paris is a fabulous city to explore great food and new perspectives.

What or who inspires you?

My students. They’re ambitious, eager to learn and to contribute. And they’ve entrusted me with their futures. I want to do my best for each of them.