In the gravitational field, researcher Jennifer Barrila excels

In the gravitational field, researcher Jennifer Barrila excels

November 13, 2014

November 13, 2014

Jennifer Barrila, Ph.D., an assistant research professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, is the 2014 recipient of the prestigious Thora W. Halstead Young Investigator’s Award, from the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR). Barrila is an accomplished microbiologist and structural biologist working in Biodesign’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, in the laboratory of professor Cheryl Nickerson. The high honor bestowed by ASGSR recognizes Barrila’s outstanding contributions to the young and rapidly expanding field of biomedical microgravity research.  

Barrila has applied her formidable conceptual and laboratory skills to investigations concerning the effects of microgravity and microgravity analogues on a range of human pathogens associated with infectious disease. 

Professor Nickerson, who has worked closely with Barrila since the latter’s arrival at ASU as a postdoctoral research scholar in 2008, presented the award at the ASGSR Annual Meeting banquet, held on October 29th in Pasadena, CA. Previous recipients of the coveted award figure among the field’s most prominent researchers. 

“Jennifer is considered a young, rising star by her peers in the field of space biomedical research and has earned their respect through her exceptional track record of productivity and the force of her intellect,” professor Nickerson said. “She is also able to convey to young scientists her own excitement and passion for science and her commitment to high research standards. Her outstanding contributions to and vision for the field of space research reflect the namesake of her award, Thora W. Halstead.  I am thus confident that Jennifer will emerge as a renowned and influential researcher and visionary in the field.” 

Barrila came to the Biodesign Institute following her prolific early research endeavors, during which she earned her undergraduate degree from Syracuse University and doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. Once at Biodesign, Barrila began to focus much of her work on studies involving spaceflight as a novel discovery platform for advancing biomedical research and combatting some of the most tenacious diseases facing society.

The award itself is named for Thora W. Halstead, a pioneering leader in the NASA Space Biology program and inspirational figure for researchers across this diverse discipline. The award bearing her name was established to honor a young scientist who exemplifies Halstead’s drive and enthusiasm for science, and who has made significant contributions to the field of space biology. 

Barrila is an ideal choice to receive the honor, having shown exceptional skill and dedication in both her intellectual understanding of host-pathogen interactions in microgravity and microgravity analogue environments and hands-on experimental innovation and expertise—a rare combination. 

As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, Barrila undertook an extensive genetic analysis of protein interactions in drosophila flight muscle, working in the laboratory of David Sullivan. The results of this research served as the basis of a co-authored paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology.  

Barrila performed her Ph.D. dissertation research in the Cell, Molecular and Developmental Biology and Biophysics Program at Johns Hopkins University in the laboratory of Ernesto Freire, conducting drug-design research targeting the main viral protease from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus. Her research resulted in six lead author and/or co-authored publications in leading research journals including Biochemistry and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

In addition to her prolific publication record, Barrila’s doctoral research helped her develop sophisticated skills in an array of disciplines including molecular biology, protein chemistry, biophysics and thermodynamics, as well as mastering biophysical research skills including microcalorimetry and analytical ultracentrifugation. 

Throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies, Barrila maintained a fascination with the effects of spaceflight on human health, particularly the ways in which key cellular and molecular properties may be altered in a microgravity environment, affecting the health of spaceflight crewmembers. The research also has broad implications in terms of advancing knowledge of similar mechanisms involved in living systems on earth. 

Barrila’s scientific preoccupations and expertise made her a natural fit in the laboratory of professor Nickerson, who has long been engaged in leading-edge microgravity biomedical research to understand how physical forces dictate the outcome of the host-pathogen interaction that leads to infectious disease. In particular, Barrila became engrossed in professor Nickerson’s investigations into the mechanical abrasion to cells caused by the force of liquids flowing over cell surfaces—a property known as fluid shear – which was shown by Nickerson’s team to uniquely influence microbial virulence (disease causing potential).   

Examining microbial pathogens in microgravity environments (such as those encountered in spaceflight), as well as microgravity analogue conditions encountered by microbes during the progression of natural infections on earth, Nickerson demonstrated alterations in virulence under physiological low fluid shear conditions for a variety of important human pathogens like salmonella. 

Barrila’s microgravity research in the Nickerson lab has focused on expanding our understanding of how changes in physical forces in a cell’s microenvironment (the local environment surrounding a cell or tissue) can alter the interactions that take place between host and pathogen.  In particular, she is interested in unraveling the complex network of epigenetic and noncoding RNA signals that appear to play an important role in mediating cellular responses of both the host and microbial pathogens to fluid shear stress.       

Since her arrival at ASU, Barrila has served as a principal investigator or co-investigator on several federally funded grants from NASA that has supported her work.  In addition, she has been the lead author and/or co-author on several research articles, including those published in Nature Reviews Microbiology and PLOS ONE. 

In addition to Barrila’s impressive publication record and formidable skills in conventional laboratory settings, she has been critically involved as a team lead in the design, execution and analysis of three spaceflight experiments in the Nickerson group —a kind of trial by fire for any researcher. The extreme rigors characteristic of spaceflight studies, where experimenters are afforded one chance to ensure all details come together as planned, allow zero margin for error. 

One such experiment was flown aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Mission STS-131 and ranked as one of the most challenging and complex life sciences experiments ever conducted on orbit. The experiment was the first to examine the infection process of human cells under conditions of true microgravity, examining host-pathogen interactions between human intestinal epithelial cells and salmonella. 

Barrila was intimately involved in the project from start to finish, including refining the experimental design, integration and implementation, in close collaboration with the team’s spaceflight hardware developer. 

“We know that changes in biomechanical forces like fluid shear can largely influence the responses of both host cells and microbial pathogens; however we are only just beginning to understand the extent to which these forces can shape infectious disease progression and outcome,” Barrila said.  “By using the unique microgravity environment of spaceflight to drive these cells to respond in ways that we cannot observe under normal laboratory conditions, we are able to explore new mechanisms that pathogens use to cause disease and identify ways in which the host can overcome them.  It was exciting to be a part of the STS-131 experiment, not only because it was my first experience working as part of a spaceflight team, but also because of the enormity of the questions we were exploring. “ 

Barrila is a reviewer for PLOS ONE, BMC Microbiology, and Tissue Engineering and has recently been appointed to the editorial board of the new Nature Publishing Group journal, npj:Microgravity, initiated by professor Nickerson, who is the journal’s founding editor-in-chief.

A manuscript reporting results from the STS-131 experiment, (dubbed STL-Immune), will be published shortly with Barrila as lead author.  A new experiment from the Nickerson group on which Barrila is a team lead is due to launch in December 2014, aboard SpaceX-5. 


Written by: Richard Harth

Science Writer: Biodesign Institute