Examining how humans and animals manage chronic infections

Andrew Olive, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, is conducting research associated with the management of chlamydia and other chronic infections.

Andrew Olive

In 2017, about 1.7 million cases of chlamydia were diagnosed in the U.S. – a spike of 22 percent compared to 2013, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers aren’t sure what caused the increase, but speculate that it’s likely due to several factors – including antibiotic resistance.

Andrew Olive, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, is conducting research associated with the management of chlamydia and other chronic infections.

“My lab is trying to understand how both humans and agricultural animals are able to manage chronic infections such as chlamydia and tuberculosis,” Olive said. “These infections may persist for years without a lot of symptoms, so I want to know how the body’s immune system is able to create what we call tolerance responses. This could lead to new treatments that build on our body’s natural defense mechanisms.

“There are human health implications and agricultural implications. Some of these types of diseases can also be transferred from animals to humans, so it’s important to understand how the diseases manifest and how the body deals with them.”

Olive received a crash course in the life of a scientist from his father, who worked for the World Health Organization on a project based in Kuwait with the goal of eradicating polio from the Middle East. The family eventually returned to the U.S., where they lived in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Nebraska. They never spent more than four years living in one place while Olive was growing up.

“My interest in science really got started watching the work my dad was doing all over the world,” Olive said. “That ignited a passion for learning and a general curiosity that serves me extremely well today.”

After high school, Olive knew he wanted to pursue science. He headed to the University of Kansas to study microbiology, participating in four years of undergraduate research, then to Harvard for his doctoral degree. At Harvard and during his postdoctoral work at the University of Massachusetts, he concentrated his research on chlamydia and tuberculosis, bacterial infections that have seen a resurgence in recent years.

Q&A: Andrew Olive

Title: Assistant professor, MSU Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics

Joined MSU: July 2018

Education: Ph.D., Harvard University; B.Sc., University of Kansas

Hometown: Born in Kuwait. Lived in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas and Michigan.

Influential or inspiring person: My dad was a huge influence on me because he was a scientist. I’ve been really lucky to have great mentors. My graduate mentor, Michael Starnbach (professor of microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard), is the one who really taught me how to care for people who work for you in science. A lot of times science is viewed as a cutthroat thing, but I thought his approach was great. I had a swim coach in high school who taught me about dedication. That mentality of doing things whether you want to or not, of staying motivated, lays the groundwork for you to not get discouraged and to attack each day.

How I get the general public interested in my work: When I was in graduate school, we did something called Science by the Pint at a local bar. We just talked with folks about our work and tried to educate people about chronic infections. Just sitting down and talking to the community about these things can help bridge that gap.

If I weren’t a researcher, I would be: I’d want to be a teacher at the middle school or high school level. I’m passionate about teaching kids, getting them interested in science and math. When you see a kid get a concept, that moment is really rewarding. If I didn’t have to work, I’d love to be a stay-at-home dad and hang out with my daughter all day.

Favorite food: I don’t necessarily have a favorite food because I like all of it, but if I had to choose a last meal I’d have a really nice steak.

Book I’d recommend: One of my favorite books is called Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. It’s about the history of society, at some level, and these three things that have influenced our society greatly. I’m particularly interested in the germs aspect, obviously. It’s a really compelling read.

Ideal vacation: My ideal vacation is a lazy one. I like the idea of lying on a beach and disconnecting. I don’t have much time to read fiction, so I’d like to read a book and just relax.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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