Dr. Eric Skaar is Director of the Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation, Director of the Division of Molecular Pathogenesis, the Ernest W. Goodpasture Chair in Pathology, and Vice Chair for Research and a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at Vanderbilt University. He earned his B.S. in Bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his Ph.D. in Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis from Northwestern University, and his M.P.H. in Epidemiology and Biostatistics from Northwestern University. Afterwards, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology at the University of Chicago before joining the faculty at Vanderbilt in 2005. Eric has received numerous awards and honors for his research including being named an American Asthma Foundation Scholar, receipt of Vanderbilt University’s Stanley Cohen Award for Excellence in Research Bridging Disciplines, the Pfizer ASPIRE Young Investigator Award, the Vanderbilt Chancellor’s Award for Research, and more. He has also won a variety of awards for exceptional mentorship and teaching, including the Vanderbilt Molecular Pathology and Immunology Graduate Program Teacher of the Year Award, the F. Peter Guengerich, Ph.D., Award, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Postdoc Mentor of the Year Award, and others. In addition, he is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Microbiology. In our interview, Eric shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:58)
When he’s not working, Eric likes playing golf, mountain biking, and spending time with his family cooking and enjoying great food.
The Scientific Side (4:00)
Eric is a bacteriologist who studies the impact of nutrition on infectious disease. His research examines how the food we eat affects our susceptibility to bacterial infection and how the bacteria that infect us get food once they are inside our bodies.
A Dose of Motivation (4:55)
Work hard. Be nice.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (6:36)
As a kid, Eric wasn’t particularly interested in science. However, he was drawn to the natural world and enjoyed playing outside. He was also especially fond of solving puzzles, and he later discovered that this is what biological research is all about. Eric attended high school at a public school in the suburbs of Chicago, and he was fortunate to have a biology class that was half anatomy and half microbiology. His high school teacher was fascinated by microbes, and this sparked Eric’s curiosity about microbiology as well. At the time, Eric didn’t know about research careers, so he assumed he would become a physician studying infectious diseases. To earn money in college, Eric started working in a media prep lab where he poured petri dishes and made test tubes full of liquid media for the large lab classes. The person who ran the facility was a great mentor, and she encouraged him to look for a position in a research lab to gain valuable experience. Getting involved in research and realizing that he could be a scientist without going to medical school had a big impact on Eric and his career. He decided to pursue a PhD degree to become an academic scientist.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (25:31)
A prior graduate student in Eric’s lab was studying bacteria that cause pneumonia using mice as a model system. She was a talented and ambitious student enrolled in the MD/PhD program who was also training to compete in an Ironman Triathlon. Because of her Ironman training schedule, she completed experiments in the lab at odd hours. This resulted in a very interesting discovery. Her data showed a clear pattern that mice that were infected at different times had different bacterial loads in their lungs, suggesting that circadian rhythms were potentially impacting susceptibility of infection. They started getting all the pieces in place to do an important experiment to definitively test this, but they weren’t able to get the necessary mouse models at the time. Meanwhile, the graduate student who had been working on the project finished their PhD and moved on to the next step of their career. Since then, no one has wanted to do this very involved project that required coming into the lab every three hours for many days. Afterwards, important papers were published in prestigious journals showing that circadian rhythms have major impacts on immune response and infection. Eric views this as a failure of execution where they should have been at the leading edge of those discoveries, but they just couldn’t get all the pieces together.
A Shining Success! (31:52)
For Eric, one of the most memorable moments in his lab was the first time he ran a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) on a gel in his own lab with buffers and chemicals he ordered, and there was a band that he could see. Being able to do something from start to finish by himself in his own lab was a really rewarding milestone. More recently, they published a paper in 2022 describing the identification of the first known zinc metallochaperones in nature. This was a protein that puts zinc into other proteins. Up to ten percent of proteins in the vertebrate proteome are zinc proteins, and it wasn’t known how the proteins that require zinc obtained it. The paper was special because they showed unequivocally that particular proteins transfer metals to other proteins, and this discovery had a big impact on the field.
Book Recommendations (38:32)
The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology by Horace Freeland Judson, Eyewitness to History by John Carey
Most Treasured Travel (40:50)
One of Eric’s favorite trips brought him to Spain to attend a Gordon Research Conference in Barcelona. A week before the conference, Eric, one of his close friends and colleagues who was also attending the meeting, and their wives went on a week-long vacation through Northern Spain before heading to Barcelona. It was amazing to see that part of the world, and it was fantastic to blend his work and life together in this trip that combined vacation and travel for work. Visiting the coastal town of San Sebastián was particularly memorable. While there, Eric recommends eating pintxos (small plates), sampling their remarkable seafood, and enjoying the phenomenal atmosphere.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (35:33)
Eric has a fairly large lab of about twenty people. There is a wide variety of personalities, and they have a lot of fun together. The group typically goes out for lunch to celebrate birthdays of lab members, and then they enjoy homemade cake back in the lab. They made it a tradition that the person with the most recent birthday is responsible for making a cake for the next person’s birthday, and this has resulted in some interesting culinary creations. It has also become a tradition to go out as a group to happy hour when someone is leaving the lab. In addition, each year Eric hosts The Northern Party. This is a party at his house where he prepares foods associated with the northern Midwestern U.S., such as Chicago-style Italian beef, Chicago hot dogs, and Wisconsin bratwursts. Other lab traditions include a holiday white elephant gift exchange where everyone brings a gift that you can drink out of (e.g. mugs, cups, etc), and they also frequently do March Madness style taste-offs of different foods and drinks like carbonated water, food you can get at Trader Joe’s, and desserts from Costco.
Advice For Us All (46:23)
Don’t make decisions based on what you think will happen if you fail. Make decisions based on what could happen if you succeed. This opens many more doors to move in exciting new directions and achieve more than you may have otherwise. A career in discovery in any industry is remarkably rewarding if you are intellectually curious. Don’t be discouraged from pursuing this career path based on a handful of loud, negative voices that you may encounter on social media. Talk to people who are engaged in these kinds of careers to really understand what it is like.
Eric’s research is focused on the intersection of nutrition and infectious diseases. He and his laboratory work to understand how bacterial pathogens and their vertebrate hosts compete for trace nutrients and how this competition dictates the outcome of infection. His expertise comes from a combination of microbiology and biochemistry, and he and his team apply techniques that are typically associated with the fields of geology and nanoscience to answer important questions in microbial pathogenesis. Instead of focusing on a single organism, Eric’s team compares and contrasts processes used across bacterial pathogens in an effort to understand how evolution has driven this molecular arms race for nutrients. The long-term goal of the Skaar lab is to exploit cutting edge technologies from diverse disciplines to uncover new targets that can lead to the creation of novel classes of antibiotics to fight infectious diseases. Outside of work, Eric enjoys golfing, mountain biking, and generally anything that keeps him moving while outdoors. Living in Tennessee supports these interests thanks to the mild weather and easy access to nature.
*Photo by Donn Jones/Vanderbilt University Medical Center.