Montana State University

Major award goes to MSU scientist who researches flu, out-of-control immune systems

September 6, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Josh Obar, 34, is one of five scientists worldwide who will receive a Young Investigator Award this fall from the American Society for Microbiology. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham). Josh Obar oversees research associate Julie Zickovich in his Montana State University laboratory.  (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

Josh Obar, 34, is one of five scientists worldwide who will receive a Young Investigator Award this fall from the American Society for Microbiology. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – A Montana State University immunologist who investigates the secrets behind out-of-control immune systems, flu pandemics and other biomedical issues has won a major award from the American Society for Microbiology.

Josh Obar, 34, is one of five scientists from around the world who will receive a Young Investigator Award during the Sept. 10-13 Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) in Denver. The other recipients work at the New York University School of Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania, the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, and Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands.

“It’s a big deal because it shows you are on the right track and that people recognize what you are actually doing,” Obar said of his prize.

Nominator Mark Quinn, head of MSU’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, said, “Josh is an outstanding young investigator with amazing potential for a stellar career in microbiology and infectious diseases.”

Obar – who has won previous awards for his research – currently wants to understand why certain respiratory infections are pathological in some people and not in others. Why, for example, can some people inhale the flu virus and only stay home sick for a day while others land in the hospital because they have cells and fluid clogging their airways?

Most people recover from seasonal flus although infants and the elderly are more susceptible, Obar said. Every 30 to 50 years, however, a pandemic strain comes along that increases the rate of death and hospitalization. Obar’s lab is trying to figure out the role of mast cells in that. Mast cells are normally associated with allergic reactions, but they may also play an important role in Influenza A virus infections.

Obar currently supervises one undergraduate student, two doctoral students and three technicians in his laboratory. Convinced that he and students benefit from working together, he said he plans to hire at least one undergraduate student a year and hopefully work with him or her for two or three years. The more experienced the students become, the more they can contribute to biomedical research, he said. At the same time, the abilities and knowledge they develop will further them in their careers.

Amy Graham, one of Obar’s graduate students pursuing a doctorate in immunology and infectious diseases, said she chose to work in Obar’s lab because she was interested in his research and knew that he had a strong background in research and science. Because of that, she thought he could help her become a better researcher and help her establish a career in science.

After 2 ½ years in his lab, Graham said her initial impressions were true. Obar is an outstanding mentor whose coaching has helped her succeed, she said. In March, she published a scientific paper as lead author.  The paper ran in The Journal of Immunology. In May, she presented her work to the international meeting of the American Association of Immunologists. Graham studies the role of mast cells during Influenza A virus infections. By understanding how they interact with hosts, she hopes to eliminate or reduce deaths and out-of-control infections.

“I appreciate all the work he has done to help me become a better scientist,” she said.

Tia Smith from Duvall, Wash., a sophomore majoring in cell biology and neuroscience, started working in Obar’s lab as a freshman. Fascinated by the chemistry, physiology and biology courses she took last year, she said she was looking for a way to satiate her curiosity in the sciences. As a result, she sought out Obar, whom she had heard was conducting research that matched the spark of passion that grew after her first-year exposure to the immune response.

“In the future, I plan to work in a clinic as a doctor,” Smith said. “The knowledge and trouble-shooting skills I’ve learned in this lab will help me understand how to find alternatives in practice. Background in immunology will prevail as a useful skill as mortality rate in hospitals continues to be largely based on exposure to the common cold/flu.

 “Josh is a wonderful mentor and boss,” she added. “His superior intellect and collaborative skills have paved successes for our lab and other research labs, and I believe his knowledge and understanding of the immune response will only proliferate in years to come.”

Obar came to MSU in 2010 and moved this spring into the Cooley Laboratory, a 52-year-old building that was transformed into a state-of-the-art hub for biomedical research. Funded largely with a $14.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Cooley houses research teams from the departments of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases, and cell biology and neuroscience.

Since starting his own laboratory there, Obar said he has seen how Cooley Laboratory enhances scientific discovery by making it easier to work with researchers inside and outside of the building. Not only can he form interdisciplinary collaborations inside Cooley Lab, but he can work more easily with researchers in the “L”-shaped arrangement of buildings that include Cooley Lab and Lewis Hall, Leon Johnson Hall and the Chemistry and Biochemistry Building.

“You can already see the exchange of different ideas,” Obar said. “That was the biggest benefit intellectually for us.”

 

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu