Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
Secretary of the NYMC Faculty Senate
Vice Chancellor for Middle States Accreditation
Interim dean, Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences
Dana Mordue, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Secretary of the NYMC Faculty Senate, Vice Chancellor for Middle States Accreditation, lives far from her idyllic childhood home of Mankato, Minnesota, but the sense of curiosity she developed exploring the woods and lakes there has never left her. Recalling how she was forever “in trouble” for going off to explore the unknown—she sees parallels between her childhood curiosity and the inquisitive mind of a research scientist. Today, Dr. Mordue is still exploring the unknown. As NYMC’s only parasitologist, she and her team are forever on a path to new discoveries about the complicated world of parasites and their role in human health.
Tell us a little about your research in the Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences.
Currently, my lab is researching two Apicomplexan parasites, Toxoplasma gondii and Babesia microti that cause human toxoplasmosis and babesiosis respectively. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), toxoplasmosis is a leading cause of death due to foodborne illness in the U.S. although death often occurs years after initial infection. Babesia microti, a tick-transmitted parasite that infects human red blood cells is a leading cause of lethality due to blood transfusion-transmitted infections in the U.S. as reported to the FDA. In fact, Babesia microti is an emerging disease on the East Coast and upper Midwest. Because the same tick can transmit Babesia microti and Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, a single tick bite can transmit both pathogens.
Our research group recently discovered that resolution of babesiosis occurs through a novel mechanism that involves death of B. microti parasites within infected erythrocytes. I was examining blood smears containing infected red blood cells and was surprised to see the parasites were degraded inside of intact red blood cells – something I had never seen reported. We are now trying to determine what makes human red blood cells permissive or resistant to the parasite to try to identify new ways to treat the infection. Babesia is fascinating because it is such an under-studied pathogen. Anything that we find is novel which makes the research exciting.
You have been at NYMC for 11 years. Is there an accomplishment during that time that you are most proud of?
Getting my first National Institutes of Health R01 Grant in 2007 was a major relief! The grant allowed us to investigate how Toxoplasma gondii resists the host immune response to establish chronic infections. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I remember checking the NIH website over and over to make sure it wasn’t a mistake when they posted the grant score, and I realized it fell in the funding range.
What is the most fascinating part of your job?
When I make a discovery that nobody else has seen before; the innate sense of discovery—that is certainly the most fascinating thing. It can be the scariest too. It is invigorating to see something no one has explored before. But the thrill of discovery comes with the flip side too—what if this isn’t right? I view science as a type of art. Research is an original idea you are presenting to the world. And just like art, the world can love it. Or, the opposite can happen.
What do you consider NYMC’s greatest asset for its students?
The faculty-student ratio at NYMC is excellent. At a small college such as NYMC, it is easy to work with and get to know faculty. There is something to be said for seeing up close how science is done. Students can see the successes of scientific research as well as the pitfalls more intimately at NYMC than they would at a larger institution.
Tell us a little about your personal journey. When did you decide to pursue a career in science?
I started college as a pre-med student. I wasn’t sure what I ultimately wanted to do but knew that the pre-med curriculum would keep my options open. I fell in love with immunology and microbiology. I still was not sure what I wanted to do but all the jobs said I needed to get a master’s degree or two years of experience. I went to interview at the University of Iowa for a master’s degree, and when I got there, they told me that I was interviewing for the Ph.D. program. I said “ok.” My Ph.D. involved B cell cancers. I realized that cancer was like an endogenous parasite and decided to study parasites as a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
What classes do you teach?
I am the course director for General Microbiology II which is basically bacterial pathogenesis. I also teach a course on emerging infectious diseases that blends epidemiology and microbiology. This is a fun course to teach because it changes every year depending on the real-world emerging diseases that the country or the world is dealing with. The past year, we tracked the Ebola outbreak. The students like it, so we have fun and learn a thing or two. I also teach in the Microbiology and Immunology course for second-year medical students in the School of Medicine. I also teach students in Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College.
What do you like to do to unwind from your work at NYMC?
I love to read. I read an eclectic collection of fiction and non-fiction. Surprisingly I have never particularly liked science fiction although the book The Martian was great! My recent favorite is the Game of Thrones series that I hope George Martin eventually completes. I see analogies to characters that survive in Game of Thrones with traits that help survival in science.
What is your best piece of advice to incoming GSBMS students?
I always tell students: take ownership of your project, and your career. You are responsible for your own success, and your own progress. No one will care or should care as much about your career as you do. I always appreciate any help that I get but realize that ultimately I better be prepared to stand on my own two feet just in case.
What is the best advice you have for graduating GSBMS students?
Don’t be afraid to reach higher than you can think you can. Early failures and struggles can be learning experiences and teach resilience and other survival mechanisms that may be more important than early successes in the long run.