An interview with Lori Covey, Dean for the Division of Life Sciences
“I can’t think of a more critical time than now to be a life scientist,” says Lori Covey, the Division Dean for Life Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences. Covey, who is starting her third year as a division dean, is a veteran professor of cell biology and neuroscience, an accomplished scholar in the field of immunology, and a dedicated mentor to young scientists. Here she discusses how she found her calling, how her field has changed over the years, and her vision for life sciences in the age of COVID-19.
Q: What drew you to the life sciences?
A: I had a great biology teacher in high school. He was very rigorous. He made us memorize all the bones of the body, but he really opened my mind to how exciting biology was. After that class, I wanted to go to medical school and save the world by curing cancer.
Q: How did you discover immunology as the field you wanted to pursue?
A: I took an immunology class during graduate school at Columbia University, and it was the only class I ever had where I couldn’t understand a thing. I was lost. Then the night before the midterm, it was almost like a parting of the waters. I hadn’t been able to wrap my head around it and then it just opened up. And that is what I have loved about it ever since. All the mechanisms are so unique. I followed my Ph.D. by doing a post-doc in a molecular immunology lab, and I have been in immunology ever since.
Q: What about it is so fascinating?
A: Immunology has so many processes that go against the grain of other scientific paradigms. It has all the exceptions. Usually you would think a mutation of a gene is a bad thing. And in most genes, it is absolutely devastating. But in the immune system, a whole set of processes need genes to mutate to make an immune response. That’s just one example. To me it’s totally cool—like writing backwards or with your opposite hand. It also has an impact on every other system in the body. One project I am working on is how the immune system influences recovery from spinal cord injury.
Q: In your training as an immunologist, did you study coronaviruses, and did you see the possibility that one day such a virus would have the large scale public health impact that COVID-19 has had?
A: I did my doctorate in virology and I will tell you that everybody in immunology/infectious disease knows that this could happen. If you think of the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, and the Ebola outbreak, these were warning signs of how bad it could be if the right virus jumped from one animal to us, and I think that is what happened.
Q: The saliva test developed last spring through RUCDR Infinite Biologics, which was led by professors from the Department of Genetics, Jay Tischfield and Andrew Brooks, was a major development in the fight against the virus. Can you tell me some of the other ways in which faculty in the Division of Life Sciences have been working to address this crisis?
A: We have people across the division working on different aspects of the virus. Tara Matise, of genetics, is analyzing the role of genetics in the susceptibility to and severity of the virus. Mike Kiledjian of cell biology and neuroscience, is doing research into cellular target RNAs with the goal of developing strategies that could potentially short circuit the virus. Stephen Anderson, of molecular biology and biochemistry, is working with scientists at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to explore a novel approach involving molecular biophysics to develop more efficacious COVID-19 vaccines.
Overall, the pandemic has provided me an opportunity to do some deep thinking about developing strengths in immunology and pathogenesis. We do not have a major center or department that focuses on these areas and I would love to see us explore that in the future.
Q: What are some of your other major goals as Dean of Life Sciences?
A: We have a fantastic faculty with real strengths in areas such as computational genetics, molecular biology, neurobiology, and model systems such as zebrafish, C. elegans, and mouse models of human disease. We also have strength in research that analyzes health metrics and their impact on disease and addiction. My ongoing priority is supporting these faculty and their students, making sure they have the resources for cutting-edge research and training at the highest level.
I think it’s also important to review the graduate programs to make sure we are offering opportunities that align with the strengths of our faculty. The main graduate program was developed 30 years ago with the idea of shared resources between labs at Rutgers and the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). Now that the two universities are integrated, it makes sense to see if that’s still the best organization for our particular strengths.
Finally, a lot of my time is spent on the state of facilities across the division. Strong life sciences require special kinds of labs, equipment, and venting systems. This is a dynamic process in which things are changing all the time. The kind of lab I needed when I came here 26 years ago is different from the lab and equipment that people need now.
Q: What do you see as the mission of life sciences in the 2020s?
A: I can’t think of a more critical time than now to be a life scientist. At the present moment, the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 poses a challenge to all of us who work in human health.
But there are also issues such as climate change, food production, fertility, cancer, brain disease and illness associated with income and health disparities that pose many challenges for future generations and that intersect with the biological sciences. So there’s a strong need for students to understand the many biological processes and how they are interconnected.
When I was training 30 years ago, we thought of immunology as somewhat of a separate system. Now we think about the intersection of the immune system with the nervous system, or with heart disease, or with its relationship to any type of pathogenic infection and disease. It’s this web where everything is highly connected. The challenges are immense, but the potential for advancing human health is exciting.