John Kirby, PhD
Associate Professor of Microbiology
What is your hometown?
I grew up in Princeton, Illinois, but I was born in Des Moines!
When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?
January 1, 2007
How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?
My dad was a pharmacist.
I became intrigued at a very young age with the notion of molecules and specificity (e.g. as a kid, I was intrigued by the idea that tetracycline would kill bacteria but not the patient).
What interested you to pursue a career in Microbiology?
I did fairly well in chemistry. As an undergraduate, I got a chance to do research in a laboratory. That experience got me interested in bench work and the process of discovery.
Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?
There were several: my general chemistry professor Steven Zumdahl, microbial genetics professor Stanley Maloy, and my PhD thesis advisor, George Ordal.
How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?
The Department of Microbiology and the University of Iowa are well regarded around the country. I'd heard about microbiology research at Iowa during my graduate years at Illinois (UIUC) and during my postdoctoral stint at Berkeley.
When an opening came up here, I didn't hesitate to apply.
The University of Iowa's faculty members are united to provide exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries into patient centered care and education?
My laboratory focuses on "beneficial microbes" that generate their own biofilms and destroy those built by many other bacteria. Our basic research is aimed at discovering underlying mechanisms that could become targets of novel therapeutics.
What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?
We have opened up completely new lines of investigation since I moved here. In particular, I am now collaborating with Mike Apicella (Microbiology) and Erin O'Brien (Ears, Nose and Throat) on a microbiome project to determine the bacterial flora in the sinuses and middle ears from healthy and diseased human subjects.
It's quite exciting.
Please describe your professional interests.
My primary interests are intercellular communication in bacteria, signal transduction during biofilm formation, and mixed species interactions in bacteria.
What led to your interest in Microbiology?
My PhD work was in bacterial motility where I focused on the behavior of bacteria as individual cells in liquid cultures. During my graduate work, I heard several seminars where I learned about the behavior of groups of cells and their role in disease. I began studying bacteria that live in communities on surfaces for my postdoc work.
How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?
The joint project with Dr. Apicella, Microbiology, and Dr. O'Brien, Otolaryngology, is a great example; that project would not be possible outside of a medical center.
We have access to human samples through Dr. O'Brien's clinical work. The science we can do here depends on access to the medical center.
What are some of your outside interests?
Hiking and snow-shoeing, especially on the frozen reservoir with my dog.
I like doing some amateur astronomy and cooking with my wife (OK, enjoying her cooking...).
Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?
It's a great idea to get out of your comfort zone; say yes to new things.
Choose work that is inspiring to you.
If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine), what would it be?
The US has fallen far behind many major countries in math and science education. The repercussions of this lack of investment are already being felt and are potentially devastating on many levels.
Investment in basic education and basic science research will have the greatest impact over the long haul. I think our priorities need to be adjusted dramatically.
What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?
The biggest change I've seen is the development of "high-throughput" technologies (coincident with computing power).
High throughput technologies have altered approaches to many of our most basic questions. While the questions might be similar to those in the past, the volume of data generated in a single experiment using proteomics or new sequencing technologies can be enormous. For example, we can sequence entire microbial communities to get a good idea of who is there without having to learn to grow organisms in the lab.
This is a tremendous step forward and has revealed phenomena such as the link between obesity and bacterial communities in the gut.
What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?
There is no shortage of research jobs; there's a shortage of qualified applicants.
Get yourself qualified by taking the best (and sometimes the most difficult) courses, and gaining extensive research experience.
Get experience in basic science now. Later, you can choose an area of interest to apply your talents and make a difference.
What do you see as "the future" of medicine?
It is clear to me that personalized medicine is upon us. We will be able to sequence our genomes, both human and bacterial residents for relatively little money, and tailor solutions based on highly accurate information.
Protecting personal data and reinventing ethical standards to deal with this information will be crucial to maximize the benefits.
In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e. population based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements off campus, etc.)?
I speak at other universities relatively frequently, mentor students from around the state through summer research fellowship programs, and I have taught an internationally recognized course in bacterial genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in NY for five years.
Everywhere I go I represent the University of Iowa and promote our interests and efforts. I actively recruit students and build collaborative efforts where possible.