“I Just Really Love Microglia”

Like neurons, the journey of a research career can be characterized by its plasticity.

This week I was privileged to sit down with Dr. Staci Bilbo (who was able to squeeze me in despite her hectic traveling schedule) and get to know her both as a PI and as an individual. Special thanks to Dr. Bilbo for sharing with me her story!

Beginning her academic path as a psychology major, Dr. Staci Bilbo’s introduction to research was not one of glia cells (her main focus, currently) but rather of neuroethology, the study of animal behavior and its underlying mechanistic control by the nervous system. For two years of her undergraduate time at Texas Tech she really enjoyed working with frogs, lizards, and various other types of reptiles to understand the neural underpinnings of navigation and communication in the hippocampus. The lab environment was fun and creative, such a positive start propelling Dr. Bilbo to continue a path of research. From here she moved to Johns Hopkins wherein she worked to understand the effects of biological rhythms, both daily and seasonal, on immune activity and efficiency. To do this she used the Siberian hamster (the animals literally collected and shipped to the U.S. by a team in Siberia!). These animals shift both the colors of their coats, and the workings of their immune response during different seasonal periods; their fever responses are shorter in the winter to the decrease metabolic strain of prolonged sickness. It was not until after this, that Dr. Bilbo really became interested in brain immunity and, after taking a neuroimmunology course at Hopkins, discovered her passion for microglia: the macrophages of the brain. This grand interest in microglia cells drove the rest of her career, even through hard times. Dr. Bilbo reflected on a great obstacle of her trajectory: when her lab at Johns Hopkins moved to Ohio State University while she was a grad student, and she was the only PhD candidate who chose to move as well. Though, she attributes the collaborative projects which resulted from this move as instrumental to her career, despite the being taxed by the move.

After a postdoc at Colorado, Boulder, she established her microglia focused lab at Duke, examining the impacts of environment on development. Talking about microglial cells, her passion for the topic was clearly evident, best summed up by her simple phrase: “I just really love microglia.” About 2 years ago, Dr. Bilbo was recruited by Harvard to begin and oversee a pre-clinical/ basic research segment of the Lurie Center for Autism as MassGeneral hospital. While this opportunity holds fond memories, the Bilbo lab is currently moving back to Duke. Personally, Duke is where Dr. Bilbo feels most at home, though a portion of the lab will remain headquartered at Harvard, noting a great chance to make the most out of available resources.

While movement throughout her life and career seems very common, it goes to show the unpredictability of one’s path, and the non-linear reality of doing what you love. Very excited about the Bilbo lab’s re-joining of Duke’s community, and the cool projects to come.

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