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John Brooks: Biologist and Science Club Mentor

Modified: June 1, 2016
John Brooks

John Brooks received a B.S. in Microbiology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor prior to attending Northwestern to pursue his PhD in biology. He interviewed all over, but Northwestern stood out for a number of reasons. 

“What drew me to Northwestern was the ease with which I was able to connect with the faculty,” John says, “I was really impressed by the caliber of research being conducted and the faculty’s ability to effectively communicate their science to me. “

He matriculated into the Driskill Graduate Program at Northwestern, and completed his thesis work in the laboratory of Dr. Mark Mandel, studying how animals acquired beneficial bacteria from their environment.

“The human body is host to thousands of select bacteria species,” he explains. “Known collectively as our microbiota, these bacteria colonize our external and internal epithelial surfaces. Our microbiota performs a series of functions that range from expanding our dietary capabilities to preventing colonization by pathogenic organisms, and each year we identify new functions by which these bacteria promote human health and fitness. Surprisingly, we are born germ-free and we don’t understand how we acquire these specific bacteria from the environment.”

To determine how animals obtain their microbiota, John studied a natural model in which the Hawaiian bobtail squid forms an exclusive beneficial partnership with its light organ symbiont, Vibrio fischeri. Like us, these animals are born germ-free, however, instead of developing associations with over a thousand bacterial species, the bobtail squid only develop a relationship with one. This allowed John and the Mandel lab to understand the mechanisms by which animals choose their microbiota from the surrounding environment. 

This spring, John graduated from Northwestern and began a postdoctoral position at the University of Texas Southwestern in the laboratory of Dr. Lora Hooper. 

“At UT Southwestern, I study the functional roles of the microbiota using germ-free mouse models,” John says. “I am most interested in the molecular mechanisms by which select members of the microbiota impact host health and fitness. In many ways, I’ve just moved from squid to mice, as the questions are very similar, ‘How do animal hosts form productive associations with their microbiota?’”

To John, the most interesting part of his research is the expansion of knowledge in the field over the past few decades. 

“Until very recent we had been studying the human body in a vacuum,” John says. “I own textbooks in which the human body was described as a sterile environment. Now we’ve come to this understanding that we’re in constant contact with microbes, some of which perform beneficial functions. This realization changes a lot of perspectives for a lot of fields, not just immunology but metabolism, and even neurobiology. We have found that it is so much more complex than we previously knew, and all of this has happened in the past 10 to 20 years!”

While at Northwestern, John spent three years working as a mentor for Science Club, a mentor-based, after school program for middle school students in the Chicago area. 

“My favorite part of Science Club came in the early fall semester,” John remembers. “The kids had to participate in their science fairs, and during the first quarter of the program we helped the students establish their own projects. I loved listening to all of the ideas that the kids came up with, and funneling those ideas into real, viable projects with controls and variables. It’s definitely something I’ll reflect on throughout my career.”

Although he is enjoying the perks of Dallas’s warmer climate, John will definitely miss his Chicago home. 

“It’s interesting because the things that I loved about Chicago are really unavailable here,” he says. “I enjoyed how walkable the city of Chicago is. You can get anywhere you need to be by walking. Dallas is the complete opposite: you have to drive everywhere. It’s definitely been an adjustment period. But, it’s 84 and sunny right now and I can go sit by the pool in early May. That wouldn’t be a possibility in Chicago right now.”

John hopes to pursue a career in academia once he has completed his postdoctoral fellowship. In the meantime, he is looking forward to experiencing a year without four seasons.