When Sebastian Lourido was an undergraduate at Tulane University in the early 2000’s, he was of two minds: one artistic and the other scientific. “I was a visual artist—a painter and print-maker—who was fascinated by the systems and structures that make up biological life,” he recalls. “For a while, these seemed like divergent paths. But the more science I learned, the more I saw the creativity embodied in it. And, eventually, I realized that a career as a research scientist offered much of the creativity I had sought through the arts.”
Today, that merging of the technical with the creative has brought him to a unique place: appointment to the faculty of Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Lourido is only the 28th individual ever to be named to the Whitehead Institute faculty, and becomes one of 16 current Members. He is very familiar with the Whitehead Institute community: since 2012, he has been a Whitehead Fellow, given the chance to establish his own lab and pursue an independent research program in lieu of traditional postdoctoral training.
“We are absolutely delighted that Sebastian Lourido will continue to be part of our community, now as a Member of the Faculty,” says Whitehead Institute Director David Page. “His formidable talents as an investigator, scientific leader, and research colleague are matched by his skills as a writer, teacher, and explicator of science. And his innate creativity is an essential part of his special capacity as a researcher and communicator.”
“We believe that Sebastian’s work—uncovering fundamental processes behind some of the most ubiquitous and lethal infections burdening global health—will substantially broaden and deepen Whitehead Institute’s worldwide impact.”
Reflecting on his appointment, Lourido says, “As a Whitehead Fellow, I have experienced firsthand the extraordinary intellectual community that has made the Institute a powerhouse of innovation for more than three decades. It is an honor and an extraordinary opportunity to become a Member of this scientifically dynamic and personally nurturing organization.”
Concurrent with his Whitehead Institute appointment, Lourido has been named Assistant Professor of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with which Whitehead Institute is affiliated. Prior to joining the Institute as a Whitehead Fellow in 2012, he received a Ph.D. in microbiology from Washington University in St. Louis; and he earned bachelor’s degrees from Tulane University in Studio Art and Cell & Molecular Biology.
Apicomplexan parasites—the single-celled organisms Lourido studies—are among the most common and dangerous microbial pathogens, capable of causing devastating infections in humans and animals. Toxoplasma gondii, for example, infects an estimated 25% of the world’s population and can cause serious disease in pregnant women, infants, and immunocompromised patients. Lourido focuses on how Toxoplasma gondii invades host cells and establishes its site of replication. The work holds great promise for exposing treatable vulnerabilities in the parasite—and in the closely related Plasmodium parasites, which cause malaria and contribute to more than a million deaths each year.
Lourido received the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award in 2013, which recognizes the work of highly regarded early-career investigators. The award was accompanied by a five-year grant to study signaling pathways involved in regulating motility in T. gondii. He is also the primary investigator on a two-year NIH-funded effort to identify T. gondii genes involved in host-pathogen interactions.
“I am very interested in the adaptive capability that allows T. gondii to invade and establish a replicative niche within host cells,” Lourido explains. “To understand this ability, we performed the first genome-wide functional analysis of an apicomplexan—revealing the genes needed to infect human cells. We have also teased apart the structure of enzymes vital to the infectious process, identifying a potentially ‘drugable’ target that could prevent parasites from entering and exiting host cells.”
For Lourido, this work is both technical and creative, enabling him to bring to bear the full range of his skills, knowledge, and talent to understand and illustrate the complex beauty of life on earth.