Ten Minutes with Rainmaker Samithamby “Jey” Jeyaseelan
Samithamby “Jey” Jeyaseelan, professor of pathobiological sciences and the Dr. William
L. Jenkins Endowed Professor at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, founded the
Center for Lung Biology and Disease, or CLBD, last year with $11.6 million in support
from the National Institutes of Health Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence,
or COBRE, grant. He is an internationally recognized investigator in the area of innate
immunity against pathogens as it relates to inflammation and injury in the lungs and
extrapulmonary organs, an academic editor of the scientific journal PLOS ONE, a review editor of Frontiers in Immunology, and a consultant editor of Journal of Leukocyte Biology. He is the immediate past president of the Tau Chapter of the Society of Phi Zeta,
the only honor society of Veterinary Medicine in the US.
Here, he traces his life-long interest in infectious disease back to his childhood in Sri Lanka.
Tell me about growing up in Sri Lanka, off the southeast coast of India.
When I was young, we had so many animals. My uncle had several cattle as well as goats, so I grew up with large animals and small animals, including dogs and cats. I was really interested in the production side of large animals; how we get milk and meat. Animals play a critical role in society and in our lives. This was the inspiration for me to get into the veterinary school. Since Sri Lanka has a single veterinary school, admission is extremely competitive.
How did you come over to the United States?
I wanted to research a cattle disease called bovine respiratory disease, a type of pneumonia associated with bacterial infection that’s a huge problem in Southeast Asia as well as in North America. It primarily affects ruminants. It’s a terrible disease, causing sudden death. For farmers, it can be a huge economic burden. So, I decided to come to University of Minnesota to do my PhD, working on bacterial pneumonia in cattle.
“Louisiana is one of the states that has a high prevalence of pulmonary disease, such as COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], asthma, and pneumonia. There’s a high mortality rate and steep health care expenditures ... Our work aims to prevent and treat these devastating diseases with a local, national, and global impact.”
After obtaining my PhD, I went to Yale School of Medicine to do some postdoctoral work. There, I was working on pneumonia in a mouse model, which brought me to National Jewish Health/University of Colorado at Denver, where I kept researching bacterial respiratory diseases using a mouse model and human samples.
How did you come to LSU?
I came to LSU almost 13 years ago. I had been looking for a tenure-track position, and LSU gave me the freedom to do whatever I was interested in doing. I connected with Gus Kousoulas who had the COBRE grant for infectious diseases here at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, or SVM, and he was looking for people interested in working in the same area who could help bring in extramural funds to the institution using COBRE support. His Center for Experimental Infectious Disease Research, or CEIDR, gave me some pilot money to initiate my research program in addition to the support from the SVM. We have now made history with the second COBRE grant awarded to LSU after 15 years.
Louisiana is one of the states that has a high prevalence of pulmonary disease, such as COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], asthma, and pneumonia. There’s a high mortality rate and steep health care expenditures. Based on 2018 statistics from the American Lung Association, there are 96,000 children and 321,000 adults suffering from asthma in Louisiana; 667,000 cases of COPD; and several deaths associated with pneumonia and vaping. Our work aims to prevent and treat these devastating diseases with a local, national, and global impact.
It is interesting that my career path in the US is analogous to the path of the Mississippi
River, which originates in Minnesota and ends up in Louisiana.
What are your research goals?
My research goal is to resolve the mechanisms by which bacteria cause inflammation in tissues, and ultimately to design novel treatments and prevention strategies to mitigate inflammation-mediated injury and/or minimize microbial burden in the context of pneumonia and sepsis, two devastating diseases in both humans and animals. These are two common diseases caused by pulmonary microbial infections, such as the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“My long-term goal is to help build up a critical mass of investigators and research infrastructure to achieve excellence in respiratory disease research. Historically, Louisiana has received a low level of research support in this area, but we are working diligently to change the respiratory research landscape.”
Respiratory infectious and non-infectious diseases are the top global burden of disease. With our recent $11.6 million grant from NIH, we’ll be able to train students and postdocs, promote new investigators, and bring in brand new equipment and talent to our state. Together, we’ll be able to excel here at LSU, and there is a good chance our grant will get renewed after two five-year terms, bringing in upwards of $32 million over 15 years. With funding, we can create an internationally recognized center of excellence for research in pulmonary diseases. Furthermore, the funds will help create and retain jobs in Louisiana.
I’m excited to use our center as kind of a pipeline to educate and fund junior researchers. Once they get an R01 grant, we can graduate them and open a slot for the next person. This way, we can rotate several investigators through and help them start their independent research programs and careers at LSU.
I’m really proud to have helped establish this research area and pleased to be the first person from the LSU SVM to receive a Rainmaker award. Honored to represent!
What motivates you?
Family: I’m so grateful to my wife and kids for their indispensable support. We have a child in high school and one who is a sophomore at LSU on the pre-med career path. With this new center grant, I have a lot of work; managing the grant takes a lot of time, time away from my family. They certainly understand why I’m really, really busy.
Lab members: I am blessed to have enthusiastic undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and research-track faculty. Daily interaction with these individuals makes my day beautiful. This year has been a wonderful year for the lab. Two PhD graduates found careers at Harvard Medical School and Merck Boston while one BS graduate through the pre-med track has been admitted by Harvard Medical School to do an MD/PhD degree.
Colleagues: I am so privileged to work with open-minded clinicians and basic science
researchers from diverse backgrounds regarding teaching, research, and service endeavors.
We together work on the annual Research Emphasis Day sponsored by the Tau Chapter
of the Society of Phi Zeta, which provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate,
graduate, and professional students, interns, residents, and postdoctoral researchers
from SVM and LSU to present their research findings.
Pulmonary Center: I am so fortunate to have splendid, promising junior faculty and thankful to our core team members for their continuous cooperation with the activities of the center.
LSU SVM administration: I am indebted to the administration for their unwavering support to run the COBRE program, where Rhonda Cardin serves as a co-investigator.
To return to where we started; do you see any parallels between Sri Lanka and Louisiana?
Of course, the climate is similar. Sri Lanka is a 21-million-people island and I grew up close to water. I love seafood! And the Creole and Cajun food, I love it. I really like softshell crab; it’s amazing. I grew up in eastern Sri Lanka. Reverend Father Harold John Weber from New Orleans came there through the Jesuit mission, which has revolutionized sports activities at high schools in Sri Lanka since 1947 and the Weber stadium became a monument to honor him.
The Rainmaker Awards are given each year by the Office of Research & Economic Development, Campus Federal Credit Union, and the Council on Research to faculty who show outstanding research, scholarship, and creative activity for their respective ranks and discipline. The awards recognize both sustained and continuing work, as well as the impact that work has had on faculty members, departments, and our academic community. There are three award categories: Emerging Scholar, Mid-Career Scholar, and Senior Scholar. For each category, an award is offered for a faculty member in the area of Arts, Humanities, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and one in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Emerging Scholar Award
Mid-Career Scholar Award
Senior Scholar Award
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development