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2001-2002 Research Professors: John Thelin & Robert Perry

John Thelin
Some historians like to focus in on an event or major figure and make that their life's work. John Thelin, professor in the UK Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation, who teaches the history of public policy and higher education, is another kind of scholar.

Thelin, one of four University Research Professors this year, is taking a longer view: during his research professorship he plans to research and write a fresh historical analysis of American higher education from the 17th century to the present.

"I admit this is an ambitious undertaking," says Thelin, who came to UK from Indiana University six years ago. "But it's a timely and significant project, and an appropriate match for UK's research professorship program because such support provides exactly the kind of resources I need to complete the work." The award will support his archival research, travel to libraries, acquisition of primary sources, and documentary analysis.

Thelin was prompted to pursue this research project because the editor of the Johns Hopkins University Press suggested there is a growing demand for such a book. "This is a major project that, to my surprise, has gone begging," Thelin says. He explains that in 1962 Frederick Rudolph, a professor of history at Williams College, wrote The American College and University: A History. The book is lively and well written, Thelin says, but it went out of print in 1986.

"In 1990 when this classic work was re-published, Professor Rudolph asked me to write an introductory essay and a bibliographic essay for its new release. Now, a decade later, I'd like to go beyond that supporting role and offer my own original narrative and analysis on the topic," says Thelin.

He adds that two factors make Rudolph's work incomplete today. First, his account stops around 1960; second, during the past four decades many important events occurred that have yet to be incorporated into an historical perspective.

"During this time, there have been numerous articles and monographs by excellent historians dealing with specific aspects of higher education," Thelin explains, "and these secondary sources haven't been adequately brought into the interpretation of American higher education, whether we're looking at 1636 [the founding of Harvard] or 2000." Themes of gender and race, for example, receive scant attention in the classic works published three or four decades ago. "My work will draw from materials and articles I've been working on for over 20 years," he adds.

Rather than visiting one or two important archives during the coming year, Thelin plans to spend shorter stays at eight libraries around the country.

"These shorter visits are possible now because of a major change in how we can do archival research. By thoughtfully using e-mail and the Internet, you can do lot of background work before you visit, so I see a number of two-week trips—to the Library of Congress inWashington, D.C., and Johns Hopkins University, for example. Corresponding with archivists to line things up ahead of time is a much better use of everyone's time," he says.

"I'm very grateful to my departmental colleague Alan DeYoung, who nominated me," he says. "What is most gratifying about this award is the idea of being acknowledged and accepted by faculty peers at a very diverse university like UK."

Jeff Worley

University Research Professorships
The research professorships were established by the UK Board of Trustees in 1976 to provide an opportunity for concentrated research and recognize outstanding research achievement. The professorships carry an award of $35,000 to enable research professors to devote full time to research or continue to teach and use the award to support research activities. Funds to support the annual awards are provided by the Office of the Vice President for Research.

2001 Recipients:
Robert Perry (Microbiology and Immunology)
John Thelin (Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation)
Thomas Widiger (Psychology)
Chi-Sing Man (Mathematics)

Robert Perry
The infection that killed 25 million people in Medieval Europe may hold the key to tomorrow's anti-bacterial and anti-tumor drugs. These potential applications, as well as a fundamental need to understand this devastating killer, are why Robert Perry has dedicated more than 20 years of research to Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague.

"It's one of the most virulent forms of infection, so it's rather infamous," says Perry, a professor of microbiology and immunology in the UK College of Medicine and recipient of one of four University Research Professorships at UK this year. "I'm interested in Yersinia pestis for two reasons: first, this organism is extremely efficient at circumventing our host defenses; and, second, it has an interesting life cycle."

Plague is a vector-borne disease, meaning it grows in fleas and the flea injects the bacteria into mammals, usually rodents. Other fleas catch the bacteria by feeding on infected rodents. "The bacteria go from living in the stomach of a flea to growing in a mammal, and because the bacteria encounter different environments, we see a number of temperature-regulated genes. We also see six or seven different iron-transport systems, and some of these are the key to Yersinia pestis's growth and the growth of a number of other bacteria," Perry says.

Pathogens, disease-causing agents, need iron just like almost every other form of life, says Perry, who has published more than 40 articles on Yersina pestis. "We have a lot of iron in our bodies, but most of it is inside our cells. What's outside our cells is bound-up by proteins, and part of the proteins' job is to withhold iron from invading pathogens." Perry says the different types of bacteria have all devised ways to remove iron from these iron-binding proteins.

One of these iron-transport systems, called yersinia-bactin (Ybt), produces siderophores—small molecules secreted into the environment to steal iron from the host's proteins and transport it back to feed the bacterial cell. The Ybt system is found in Yersinia pestis, other Yersinia species, and some strains of disease-causing E. coli. "The Ybt system is essential for the organism to grow in the early stages of the disease, when it's in the lymph nodes," Perry says. "Once it gets out into the bloodstream and spreads to the liver, spleen and other organs, another system called Yfe (Yersinia iron) is important."

Because these iron-transport systems are essential to the bacteria's growth, they are potential targets for therapies, Perry says, and he points out that there is no licensed plague vaccine in the United States anymore. Although the last urban plague epidemic in the United States occurred in Los Angeles in the 1920s, an average of 10 to 15 human plague cases are reported each year, most often in rural areas of the West. About 14 percent of these cases are fatal.

Perry is collaborating in this work with Christopher Walsh at Harvard. "A lot of different enzymes are involved in siderophore synthesis, and these types of enzymes also make anti-bacterial compounds," Perry says. "Christopher Walsh is interested in taking a catalytic domain from one enzyme and hooking it up to a domain from another one. By doing that you can make a designer molecule that could have a toxic property for a bacterial cell."

A catalytic domain is a part of the enzymatic protein that carries out a biochemical reaction; and the enzymes Perry is working with often have five to 10 different catalytic domains, each responsible for carrying out a specific step in synthesis of the siderophore. Perry adds that some of the compounds made by these types of enzymes also have anti-tumor activity, so scientists may be able to design the next generation of cancer drugs based on this fundamental research.

Perry plans to use his research professorship funding to support a continuing project focusing on how bacteria communicate with one another using what are called "quorum sensing systems," a name which reflects the need to determine if there are enough members of the group present to "conduct business."

"In pathogenesis this makes sense. You want to have a high enough population so if you start making a toxin, you have enough of your group there to create a toxic effect," he says. "If you start making a toxin when there are too few cells present, the concentration is too low, so the toxin doesn"t really do the job. Also, you've tipped off the immune system."

Yersinia pestis has three different quorum sensing systems and Perry's group at UK (five people including assistant professor Jacqueline Fetherston, postdocs and technicians) will continue work to characterize the sensing systems and try to identify whether or not they control any genes that are important in causing plague.

Alicia P. Gregory