Alex Grossman, who recently earned his PhD in microbiology, had originally started his journey in higher education with the goal of studying ecology. After completing the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in the UT Department of Microbiology, however, he discovered a passion for microbiology.
“Ninety to 99% of all the biology on planet Earth is microbiology, and I would say that’s where my passion and fascination come from,” Grossman said.
It was how he decided to come to UT to pursue his PhD, and brought the experience full-circle when he mentored an REU student during his PhD.
“I got to be, for someone else, the source of inspiration that I had received myself when I was an REU student” he said. “I enjoyed that opportunity to nurture an interest in science.”
Grossman completed his PhD work in Professor Heidi Goodrich-Blair’s lab, who also serves as head of the microbiology department.
“In my first year it certainly was intimidating to have my research mentor be the department head. It was a bit more hands-off, but I really appreciated getting to be more independent,” Grossman said. “Despite how busy she was, she always went out of her way to always be there for the students, myself and others included.”
Grossman researched microbe-host symbiosis, using nematodes as the experimental system. Nematodes were ideal to work with because of how small and simple a host they are. Ultimately, the work led him to discovering and characterizing a novel gram-negative bacterial secretion system (Type-XI secretion system).
“The system is a mechanism the bacteria have evolved for secreting protein in the environment, either to survive off the host or to interact with the host by binding host antigens, immune factors, and the like.”
What is special about this secretion system is that it is found in the microbiome of humans and other organisms as well. It is exciting to think that a bacterial system discovered in nematodes has implications in human medicine, and certainly speaks to the diverse applications of microbiology.
Grossman explains that beyond the molecular and bench work he gets to do in the lab, he quite enjoys the bioinformatic and coding work he gets to do as a part of the analysis.
“There’s something exhilarating about this experiment that took weeks of work and now there’s an excel sheet with a gigabyte of random numbers and you need to find the story and the logic in it.”
Grossman was inspired to pursue microbiology because of how vastly relevant it is to so many different processes of life overall. Looking forward to his post-doc work, he is excited to seek out new biology and systems to study, while deepening his passion for bioinformatics and lab work.