Why study that, Chris Aiken?

An interesting part of an adventure is that you never know what your path holds;  another exciting part is joy you get in sharing the travel with others . Both of these attributes could be said about Dr. Chris Aiken’s path in science. Chris is Professor of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at Vanderbilt. Read about his journey here!

-by Dr. Chris Aiken, Ph.D.

Mama Gump said: “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” While scientific research emphasizes logic and testing of hypotheses, for me it’s really seemed like an adventure.

My research journey led me to study the molecular details of HIV infection. As a graduate student studying bacterial restriction enzymes, I heard about the emerging disease known as AIDS, which apparently planted a seed for my postdoctoral studies. In the late 1980s, I attended an evening seminar by an AIDS researcher who admitted that it wasn’t clear how people who were infected with HIV could survive. Perhaps the study of viruses was kindled by learning about fascinating bacterial viruses such as bacteriophage lambda in my grad school courses. Although I didn’t specifically target HIV labs, I serendipitously found a postdoc in a new lab at the prestigious Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. (It didn’t hurt that the lab had a view of the Pacific ocean.) The training was intense; the lab launched many new projects and we published our work in top journals. I still remember several moments of intense joy when new experiments worked perfectly and my data clearly revealed key aspects of how HIV infects cells. (Those were some good chocolates!)

When I started my own lab at Vanderbilt, I wanted to understand how the HIV core functions, which was a real black box at the time. I had come to Vanderbilt with a project aimed at understanding how the HIV Nef protein enhances viral infectivity. Once inside the cell, most viruses undergo a process of disassembly, generally referred to as uncoating, and I hypothesized that Nef regulated this process. Although Nef turned out to have nothing to do with uncoating, by pursuing this new research direction, we learned that uncoating is a critical step in HIV infection and helps the virus evade detection by the cell, thereby ensuring spread within the host. Indeed, CA—the key HIV protein involved in uncoating (which happens to also be my initials)—is now a target for emerging antiviral compounds.

Although I tend to be somewhat introverted, a surprisingly enjoyable aspect of my journey has been the other scientists I have met and worked with along the way. For example, in collaboration with some brilliant structural biologists, we have determined the structure of the viral capsid and helped understand its functions. Like Lieutenant Dan, my collaborators have expanded and improved my research, and some have become my good friends.

My career and life have also been enriched by the students I have worked with. These days, I am getting more pleasure at seeing students get excited about research, and I am looking forward to watching their own career odysseys unfold.

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