Carolina López, PhD, recognized internationally for her research on viral infections, has been named a BJC Investigator and will join the faculty of the Department of Molecular Microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She also will become a member of the faculty at the school’s Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research.
The BJC Investigators Program recruits to the School of Medicine scientists who will have a transformational impact on overall research programs by bringing innovative approaches to major biological questions and new ways to understand disease and develop treatments.
López is an associate professor of pathobiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She will begin her new role at Washington University in the spring of 2020.
She is the third BJC Investigator named. The first was Helen McNeill, PhD, the Larry J. Shapiro and Carol-Ann Uetake-Shapiro Professor of Developmental Biology, who studies molecules that govern the ways cells make contact and communicate with one another. The second was Adam Kepecs, PhD, an expert on the neural circuits responsible for cognition and decision-making. He joined the neuroscience and psychiatry departments.
The BJC Investigators Program is focused on basic science and was inspired by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s philosophy of investing in scientists with exceptional creative talent. Eventually, the program will bring 10 highly regarded researchers to the School of Medicine and the life sciences ecosystem in St. Louis. The first BJC Investigator was named in 2017.
“Dr. López’s work has led to seminal discoveries on how viral factors drive immune responses to viruses and limit virus replication and spreading,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “As I have come to know her, Carolina embodies all of the most wonderful characteristics of our community: intelligence, drive, imagination, enthusiasm and collaboration.”
BJC Investigators are recommended by a search committee of 42 leading scientists at the School of Medicine. The committee’s charge is to select candidates who already have indelibly changed their fields, whose discoveries will result in new and fundamental shifts in scientific thinking, and whose laboratories have become hubs for even more work that can galvanize the school’s preclinical departments.
López studies how viruses interact with the immune system during infection. As viruses copy their genomes, a large number of defective copies are made. López studies the different forms of a virus – including those with regular and defective copies of their genome – that are present in an infection and how these different forms interact with the infected cell and influence its function. López showed that these defective copies trigger a powerful immune response, and that this response plays a key role in how the body fights key viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus and parainfluenza virus, both of which can cause serious respiratory infections in children.
At Washington University, López plans to study how viruses interact with the body and how defective viruses influence the development of disease in humans. She also is using the properties of defective viruses to develop more powerful adjuvants, or compounds that increase the effectiveness of vaccines, for viral diseases. In addition, her laboratory has begun to study how the interaction between standard viruses, defective viruses and the body influence how viruses evolve and are maintained in nature. She plans to expand on this program at Washington University.
López grew up in Chile and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biochemistry from the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile before completing her doctoral and postdoctoral training with Thomas Moran, PhD, at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. An advocate for diversity in science, she mentors early-career researchers from underrepresented backgrounds and is a fellow of the NIH-funded Professional Mentoring Skills Enhancing Diversity (PROMISED) Program. She received a faculty mentoring award from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017 and became a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in 2018.
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