Schneewind named chairman of University of Chicago department of microbiology

October 28, 2004

Olaf Schneewind, MD, PhD, an infectious disease expert, has been named chairman of the University of Chicago's department of microbiology. Schneewind, formerly a professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University, takes charge of this recently revived department at a critical point in the study of microbiology at the university--and in the world.

Schneewind's appointment and the renaissance of the department of microbiology coincide with increasing worldwide concern over infectious diseases--particularly those associated with biological warfare and terrorism.

"As physicians, we must have our eyes on infectious diseases that represent real problems to humanity," Schneewind said. "Microbiology research needs to identify anti-viral therapies and vaccination strategies to combat some of the most dangerous and abundant diseases in human society."

Schneewind investigates how pathogenic bacteria lead to human disease. Over the course of his career, he has developed various techniques to improve the study of protein targeting in pathogenic bacteria. He is also involved in translational research, as a consultant to many well-known pharmaceutical companies.

"Future research in microbiology will identify new antibacterial therapies by exploiting our knowledge of specific genes," Schneewind said.

The department of microbiology, which grew out of the committee on virology and the department of molecular genetics and cell biology, will support the research efforts of existing faculty who are interested in microbiology, recruit new faculty and expand the University's research programs in microbiology and infectious diseases.

Professors in the department hope to spark interest in infectious disease among students, creating a new generation of microbiology researchers. "The committee on microbiology provides undergraduate, graduate and medical students with teaching, diagnostic procedures and research training in the field," said Schneewind, who, up until his current appointment, was the chairman of the committee on microbiology.

Schneewind graduated from the University of Cologne Medical School in 1988 with an MD and a PhD in microbiology. He did his postdoctoral training with Vincent Fischetti at Rockefeller University before being appointed assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine. While at UCLA, Schneewind was promoted first to associate professor (1997), then to professor (2001), before moving to Chicago in 2001.

Schneewind has received numerous awards and honors. His dissertation won the VUB Prize for best doctoral thesis. In 1995 he won the Stein-Oppenheimer Research Award, and in 2000 he received the Shipley Award from Harvard Medical School.

In 2003, he was named Principal Investigator of the Great Lakes Regional Center of Excellence (RCE) for biodefense and emerging infectious disease research. This position involves fostering close collaboration between 20 area medical research centers to prevent biological terrorism and emerging diseases such as SARS, anthrax and West Nile Fever. The RCE, which the University of Chicago and Northwestern University spearhead, is made possible by a five-year, $35-million National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) grant.

Schneewind also was instrumental in organizing the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, a technologically advanced Biosafety Level 3 facility being built at Argonne National Laboratory.

The author of more than 75 peer-reviewed publications and several book chapters, Schneewind has served on the editorial board of journals including Molecular Microbiology, Journal of Bacteriology, and Trends in Microbiology.

As for his newest appointment, Schneewind couldn't be happier. "It's a pleasure to figure out how bacteria cause disease," he said. "It's a beautiful science."

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