New Biology Faculty Member Provides Insights on Viral Infections

By Michelle Valkanas
Ph.D. Candidate, Biology and NCSE Science Communication Fellow

Photo of Jill DemboskiDr. Jill Dembowski is the newest faculty addition in the Biological Sciences Department. She joined the department in Fall 2019. Dr. Dembowski studies Herpesvirus 1 (HSV-1) which is a common human pathogen that infects over >60% of the population. Most people never know that they are infected; the virus can have no symptoms or at most a cold sore or a blister. For immunocompromised individuals and neonates, infection is much more severe and can be deadly. "I can't wait to get back to research!" she said excitedly. Dr. Dembowski has clear enthusiasm for her research on HSV-1, as well as a greater understanding of combating viral infections.

Dr. Dembowski's research focuses on the molecular development of HSV-1 and how it utilizes its host resources to cause infection. "A lot of the discoveries in Molecular Biology were done using viruses as tools... that's personally something I am very interested in... understanding how the cell works by understanding how the virus manipulates it." By understanding how viruses replicate within their host, we can identify proteins involved in this process. This leads to the development of new anti-viral drugs that target those proteins. Additionally, Herpesviruses are used for viral gene therapy, where viruses are used as a delivery vector (a transport vesicle that delivers the genetic material to the target area). A better understanding of how HSV-1 works can help optimize gene delivery targets in the future. Dr. Dembowski's research will lead to a better understanding of HSV-1, which in turn can increase the efficacy of anti-viral drugs and viral gene therapy.

Dr. Dembowski received her B.S. in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at Clarion University. She then went on to receive her Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh under Dr. Paula Grabowski. After receiving her Ph.D., she held postdoctoral positions in the labs of Dr. John Woolford (Carnegie Mellon University) and Dr. Neal DeLuca (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine). Most recently, she was a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. This position allowed her to develop her own research questions and ultimately receive an R21 Research Grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The R21 Research Grant was critical for the development of Dr. Dembowski's current research aims and produced preliminary data for future research grants and publications. Dr. Dembowski's work at Duquesne will also be supported by her R21.

When asked how she was settling into Duquesne, Dr. Dembowski was extremely enthusiastic. "Great!" she exclaimed. "I have a lot of support here at Duquesne. I am very impressed with the staff and the students. I have had a lot of mentoring through other [Biology] faculty... [which has] been incredibly helpful." Dr. Dembowski also acknowledges that the facilities and resources at Duquesne will allow her to accomplish everything she needs to do.

Additionally, she already enjoys teaching at Duquesne. Dr. Dembowski is currently teaching 70 freshman biology students in an introductory biology course. She noted that she was "looking forward to getting critical feedback on her teaching this semester so that she can continue to improve and be an effective instructor for her students." Dr. Dembowski also looks forward to developing a virology course in the next few years. She explains that she has already begun to survey the student body and that there was a lot of positive feedback and interest in taking the class.

Dr. Dembowski offers sound advice to graduate students just starting their Ph.D. journey: "Don't get discouraged. Your experiments might not work. You are going to make mistakes. Things don't go as planned; you have to be flexible [and] adaptable. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't worry about disappointing anyone." She says a lot of students have issues with failed experiments in the beginning and that it is important to realize that this happens and not to let that discourage you.

Now that her lab is almost up and running, Dr. Dembowski is looking forward to resuming research with undergraduates and graduates at Duquesne. She is excited to start generating more data for publishing papers and writing research grants. There are 2 Ph.D. students that will be rotating in her lab this spring that will be able to contribute to the lab's research goals. Dr. Dembowski is also excited to attend the International Herpesvirus Workshop Conference in Berlin, Germany next year to share her latest research findings. When asked what her long-term goals were, she stated that she is excited to have a good community of students working in her lab, as well as having a productive research program.

Outside of research and teaching, Dr. Dembowski likes to spend time outdoors with her family: her husband Ray, 2 daughters Madison (11) and Emma (9), and 2 Springer Spaniels Willow and Eddy. She loves to go hiking and camping and spends a lot of time at the softball fields watching her daughters play. One of the awesome things about Duquesne, she notes, is that she can ride her bike to campus. Dr. Dembowski is settling in well at Duquesne and is looking forward to what the future holds not only in the lab, but in the classroom, as well.