Bonnie Gunn

Hometown: Darwin, Australia
Undergraduate: Washington University, St. Louis

Bonnie Gunn got an unusually early start in science. The Australia native moved to New York City when she was 12 and the high school she attended was science focused. Through her high school she was able to work in a lab at NYU during the school year and in the summers. “It was a malaria lab and I had a lot of fun learning new things. It was a good introduction to science” she says. Her interest in science continued and she spent most of her 4 undergraduate years at Washington University, St. Louis studying salmonella in Roy Curtiss’s lab. After she graduated she moved with the lab to Arizona and continued to work there as a technician. Bonnie said “Being a tech for a few years really helped me with the decision to go to graduate school. I wasn’t really ready right after undergrad. I had double majored in Biology and in Political Science so my attention was split. Working in a lab for a while reinvigorated me and helped me refocus.” When Bonnie did apply to graduate school she ultimately chose UNC for its high quality science and the good experience she had on her interview trip. “The students I met were really into talking about science. Everyone was. There was good science, the town was cool – I just had a good feeling.”

At UNC Bonnie joined the Microbiology & Immunology PhD program and chose Mark Heise’s lab for her thesis work. Bonnie’s goal was to understand how alpha-viruses such as Ross River Virus (RRV) or chikungunya virus (CHIKV) induce arthritis and myositis (muscle inflammation) in their host. These infections typically involve joint swelling and fatigue that lasts for months. RRV and CHIKV are mosquito borne viruses that cause disease outbreaks in many regions of the world. The most recent CHIKV epidemic involved over 6 million people since 2004, and the virus evolved to spread into new mosquito hosts that are present in many areas including Europe and the US. RRV is endemic in Australia, interestingly including the area where Bonnie was born, and causes periodic outbreaks as well. Bonnie was able to identify the viral and host factors involved in RRV mediated disease and used this information to dissect the mechanism by which the inflammatory response occurs in mice and in humans. She showed that the glycoproteins on the viral envelope activated the host Mannose Binding Lectin (MBL) pathway and then went on to show that in RRV infection the MBL pathway contributes to disease. This was a novel finding because the MBL pathway (a part of the host innate immune system) had previously been shown to be protective during infection by other viruses including West Nile and HIV. The current treatment for patients suffering from RRV or CHIKV associated disease includes anti-inflammatory medications to alleviate symptoms. Bonnie’s work suggests a possible therapeutic target that could improve treatment options for patients.

Bonnie defended her thesis in January 2013 and in March she started a post-doc with Galit Alter at Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard. There she will work on glycosylation and innate immunity in context of HIV and HCV. Although she is shifting her focus somewhat, she is still a virologist and says she will stay in touch with the members of the Heise lab. “Mark recruits fantastic people to work with him. All of the post-docs, graduate students, and technicians I worked with contributed to my development as a scientist. The network of people that have been in the Heise lab extends all over the country and I look forward to many years of collaboration and friendship with them.” When asked to reflect on how Chapel Hill compares to other places she’s lived, Bonnie said “Even though I lived in big cities before and even though I’m looking forward to living in Boston, I have not been disappointed here. I’ve really enjoyed my life in Chapel Hill. The lifestyle is really relaxed here, driving and parking is convenient. I’ve never felt lacking with food options or things to do. The music venues are good, and there’s a lot of stuff in Raleigh and Durham.” In fact, Bonnie said she was surprised at how easy it was to have a life outside of lab. She squeezed in runs around campus during incubation periods. She picked up gardening when she was living in a house that had a little plot of land. She has even been able to cultivate her favorite hobby of cooking. “My mother is from Malaysia so recently I’ve been learning to make coconut curries. There are some pretty good Asian grocery stores around here where you can get ingredients.” She even found the time to learn how to change the brake pads on her own car. “It’s cheaper, and way more fun to do it yourself.”

When asked about having Bonnie in the lab, her advisor Mark Heise said “Bonnie was one of the most enthusiastic students that I have ever had the pleasure to work with. She demonstrated a true love of science that was reflected the dedication that she showed within the laboratory and the enthusiasm that she exhibited in presenting or talking about her work.” Bonnie was equally happy with Mark as an advisor. She said he gave her lots of room to explore and do her own thing and at the same time was very involved with mentoring her about career options. How can other students find the same kind of successful mentoring match? Bonnie says “a good mentoring relationship really depends on what the student needs and on the PI’s style. In my case, I am independent and Mark has allowed me to be that way. Some people need more of a micromanager. So it’s really important to interact with the PI as much as possible during the rotation so you really know how that works for you.” Bonnie had plenty of opportunities to share this message with first year BBSP students in her role as a peer mentor for a First Year Group. Since interacting with senior students was influential to her when she started out she felt like she should pay it forward and help other students navigate their early days in graduate school. One of her favorite pieces of advice is to encourage students to talk regularly with their PIs, especially when things are going poorly in lab. This is usually a time when students want to hide but Bonnie says “communication is important, that’s how you learn to work through problems and grow as a scientist.”