Vanessa Sperandio, PhD, an expert in the cellular interactions that take place between mammals and microbes, will join the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health as the chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology.

Sperandio will be arriving from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where she is a professor of microbiology and biochemistry.

Researchers in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology focus on microbial pathogens, the immune responses pathogens spark in infected organisms, and how infectious disease can be prevented and treated. Established in 1935, the department’s scientists have made fundamental contributions to the study of infectious disease and immunity. In collaboration with the Department of Bacteriology in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the department offers the No. 1-ranked PhD program in microbiology in the nation.

Vanessa Sperandio
Vanessa Sperandio

“I am thrilled to be joining the School of Medicine and Public Health to lead this important and unique department,” Sperandio said. “Rarely in history has the study of infectious disease and immunity been more crucial. I look forward to what we will discover together.”

Sperandio earned her undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the State University of Campinas in Brazil, completing her PhD in molecular genetics in 1995. She performed part of her graduate work at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development. In 2001, she joined the faculty of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and from 2007 to 2010 was chair of its Molecular Microbiology Graduate Program.

Her research is focused on the complex signaling among mammalian hosts, beneficial microbes on and in the hosts, and invading pathogens. She has authored more than 120 peer-reviewed research articles.

Sperandio’s work has demonstrated, for example, how bacterial cells can use mammalian neurotransmitters, signals from beneficial bacteria, and other molecules to gather information about their hosts. Her laboratory reported that these bacteria — which include pathogenic E. coli and salmonella — can utilize that information to cause infection.

Strains of these bacteria have the potential to become “superbugs” that are resistant to all available antibiotics. Her group has harnessed these findings to help develop therapies and other methods to fight infection.

Sperandio is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and has been named a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow by the National Academy of Sciences and Pew Latin American Fellow in Biomedical Sciences. Her honors include being selected as a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Diseases and earning an Eli Lilly and Company-Elanco research award.

She hopes to lead the department in continuing its innovative interdisciplinary research that bridges the basic and translation sciences. She also has a strong commitment to furthering diversity in science by training and mentoring researchers from backgrounds underrepresented in science and medicine. Her appointment will become effective in the spring of 2022.

“Dr. Sperandio’s commitment to collaboration, communication, and diversity make her a great addition to our school’s leadership,” said Robert N. Golden, MD, dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “Under her guidance, the department will continue to be a prime example of our school’s dedication to understanding all aspects of human health and disease impacted by microbial pathogens and the microbiome.”