Scientist Spotlight: Lauren Oldfield

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Lauren Oldfield, Ph.D. and her husband Brian Keener (also a JCVI employee) at the Great Blue Hole in Belize while on a scuba diving trip. Photo courtesy Lauren Oldfield.

Scientist Spotlight: Lauren Oldfield

Since high school, Lauren Oldfield, Ph.D. found that science was her calling. It started with a love of reading encouraged by her mom and grandmother, both avid readers, and weekly trips to the public library. Books by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston were staples in her grandmother’s collection. After devouring “The Hot Zone,” a fictionalized account of an almost outbreak of Ebola in the United States, microbiology and the study of infectious diseases became her passion.

Attending an all-girls high school, Our Lady of the Elms in Akron, Ohio, was a vital part of Lauren’s path to becoming a scientist. Science came naturally to her during these formative years, and inspiring female science teachers encouraged her. The all-girls environment made it obvious that STEM was not “just for the boys.” She says these circumstances kept some of the self-doubt and anxiety at bay that girls in STEM often experience.

Lauren attended the University of Akron as an undergraduate with a focus on microbiology, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh where she studied molecular biology and microbiology. During graduate school as a researcher in the Hatfull group, Lauren focused on bacteriophages that infect mycobacteria, a group that includes the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. She worked to better understand the life cycle and gene expression of one particular phage, BPs.

As a graduate student, Lauren had the opportunity to attend several American Society for Microbiology conferences. One year, she saw a seminar where J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) Distinguished Scientist, Clyde Hutchison, Ph.D. presented the work of the JCVI team to build a synthetic cell, which inspired Lauren to consider combining synthetic biology and microbiology as a career. When she graduated, she looked for jobs at JCVI and was hired to work in the synthetic genomics group with JCVI Associate Professor, Sanjay Vashee, Ph.D.

During her early research as a post-doc, Lauren helped develop genetic tools to make herpesvirus genetics easier and faster for researchers, advance basic virology research, and aid in the development of virus-based treatments and vaccines. Lauren was immediately taken with the collaborative and collegial nature of JCVI where other scientists and principal investigators were willing to support her, share ideas and teach her new techniques. After two years, Lauren was promoted to Staff Scientist, giving her the opportunity to branch out on many different projects, develop collaborations with co-workers and thus learn about new areas of research.

Lauren, along with other JCVI faculty, spent two years working on sequencing and diagnostics related to the Zika virus during the 2015-2016 outbreak. This important work, funded through the Genome Center for Infectious Diseases grant from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, led to rapid insight into what was a worldwide concern for pregnant women and women of childbearing age.  She also worked on another viral outbreak that continues to make global headlines, enterovirus D68. This virus can lead to paralysis in young children, similar to the symptoms of polio. Lauren collaborated with JCVI professor and La Jolla Campus Director, Richard Scheuermann, Ph.D., and his group to study infection of neuronal cells in culture. Recently, Lauren turned some of her attention to an animal disease called lumpy skin disease virus, which affects cattle and has recently spread to Europe. She was recently awarded an R01 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to study the effect of pollution exposure on the microbiome and the role of the microbiome in onset of asthma with collaborator and co-principal investigator Alexey Fedulov, Ph.D. from Brown University.

Of all the incredible research Lauren has been a part of at JCVI, she has been most inspired by her work on the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) synthetic genomics project. When she first started, no one had ever developed synthetic genomics tools for viruses with large DNA genomes, but today she and Sanjay have developed tools for all three families of human herpesviruses, studying HSV-1, human cytomegalovirus, and Epstein-Barr virus. Being a part of novel, cutting-edge research is very important to Lauren and she continues to collaborate with virologists to develop better vaccine design, as well as potential virus-based cancer therapeutics.

While writing the manuscript for the HSV-1 synthetic genomics project, she and her team were asked to include their thoughts about the potential for dual use of this research and to explore the important biosecurity implications of combining synthetic biology techniques and virology. While this was not one of Lauren’s areas of expertise, she did a lot of research and worked with Robert Friedman, Ph.D., JCVI’s Vice President for Policy & University Relations, and head of the JCVI Policy Center to think through and discuss potential risks. This led her to an interest in biosecurity and last year she was accepted to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship. The program brings together scientists and policymakers from government, industry and academic backgrounds to discuss current biosecurity issues and how the scientific community can be more proactive versus reactive to any potential threats.

Lauren was recently promoted to Assistant Professor and is now part of JCVI’s faculty. She continues to be driven by a desire to make a difference in the world and to develop new and important understanding in human health. When she’s not working at JCVI, Lauren is a certified amateur scuba diver and can be found off the coast of Belize once a year.