Photo by: Heather J. McClelland
As part of the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiological Sciences, Juan’s lab is focused on finding alternatives to antibiotics to combat certain classes of disease-causing bacteria.
Born and raised in Chicago’s predominantly Mexican immigrant neighborhood La Villita, Juan’s fascination with the inner workings of things drew him to the field of science. Juan earned a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and spent four years as a post-doctoral research scholar at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France.
Juan’s work has covered a wide range of biomedical research, including an investigation of tick-borne diseases funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His lab’s work is expanding the arsenal to combat some of the most difficult infections plaguing humans and other animals.
We recently chatted with Juan ahead of his TEDxLSU talk on March 23 to discuss his work, his life and what it’s like being a transplant hockey fan in southern Louisiana. Read some highlights of the conversation below.
How did you end up at LSU?
I was a tenure track Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Chicago from 2005-2012. During this time, my good friend and now colleague, Dr. Kevin Macaluso, (who is also a professor in Pathobiological Sciences) invited me to give a talk at LSU. Honestly, aside from knowing that LSU had great football and baseball teams, I didn’t really know much about the school let alone other schools in the SEC.
I went back to Chicago very much impressed with the department and with the support from the School of Veterinary Medicine. I very much felt that I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself and I saw a lot of potential in how the department and the school could grow in terms of research. I was at a point where I needed to make a career move and when a faculty position became open in PBS I was encouraged by Dr. Macaluso and also Dr. Gus Kousoulas (Professor in PBS and also Associate Vice President for Research & Economic Development at LSU) to apply. I came back and interviewed for the position — and the rest, as they say, is history. I am very happy that I chose to move down south. As I tell my Yankee friends, I don’t think that I ever want to move north of I-12.
What attracted you to your field?
I’ve always been attracted to how things work and behave. Ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve been fascinated by understanding the mechanisms of things — the how and why, if you will.
I had the opportunity to participate in an NIH Summer Apprenticeship program the summer prior to my first semester freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This research experience had a lasting impression on me and got me hooked on biomedical research. I knew that this was my calling.
That curiosity on how things work evolved into a question of how microbes that are invisible to the eye can cause such devastating outcomes in humans and animals. That basic research in a lab — results obtained from a culture dish — can often translate, after a lot of work, to therapies that are used in mammals to combat disease. This makes the work of my research team very fulfilling.
I understand you’re a huge hockey fan. How do you manage your fandom in a place that doesn’t give much attention to the sport?
You would be surprised about how many hockey fans are roaming around Baton Rouge. I’ve met several Chicago transplants that are also diehard Blackhawks fans here and depending on my mood, I’ll catch a game at Pluckers on Bluebonnet or Walk-On’s near campus. I’ll admit, I did get some strange looks when I asked that a TV be changed to hockey, but as long as I’m not changing a Saints or LSU Tigers game, I’m usually OK.
How long did you live in France? What do you miss most about that experience?
I lived in Paris as a post-doctoral research fellow from 2001-2005. These years were formative not only for me as a scientist, but also as a person. I made some friendships that are lifelong and I know that my knowing them made me a better person.
I miss them dearly and interestingly enough, the majority of my really close friends in Paris also came from other parts of the world including, Spain, Uruguay, Australia, Mexico, Costa Rica and Portugal.
Of course I miss the food. There is an outdoor market across the street from the Corvisart Metro line in Paris, down the hill from where I used to live in the 13th arrondissement (La Butte aux Cailles neighborhood) that I used to frequent especially on weekends. I miss the artisan bread, pastries, cheese and charcuterie (oh, la, la c’est trop bon le jambon de bayonne!).
The quality of ingredients is simply second to none — they’ve been doing this for centuries in some cases and they are good at what they do. I miss stopping off at a cafe, sitting outside, having a coffee and watching the world go by.
What do you do to relax and unplug from your work?
I love to play golf, as frustrating as it can be. There is nothing better than taking out some frustration on a little white ball and watching it go where you aimed — at least sometimes. I’ve gotten better over the years, which of course translates to a better enjoyment on the course. The fact that one can do this essentially all year long is also a bonus to living in Louisiana.
Do you have any other hobbies?
I absolutely love to entertain and cook for people. I lived by myself in Paris and decided that I really wanted to learn how to cook classic French food and desserts. I learned a lot regarding proper techniques and, importantly, how to make the sauces that make French food so delicious.
What is your superpower?
I’m not sure if this qualifies as a superpower, but I tend to pick up languages fairly quickly. I grew up speaking Spanish before I spoke English, but I picked up French as a total immersion experience in about 6-7 months. I understand Italian and Portuguese pretty well and can hold my own a little with Swedish. I think if you dropped me into some random country, I’d be able to survive and, given a little time, pick up the basics of a language.
To learn more about Juan or about TEDxLSU 2019, follow TEDxLSU on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Reserve your seat now to experience his talk, as well as the talks of all of the other TEDxLSU 2019 speakers.