For Trevecca’s Dr. Judy Brown, research generally begins with a question. A key component of the scientific method, the hypothesis is the starting point for research that can change lives, something Brown knows well.
As a doctoral student at Vanderbilt, Brown—who joined Trevecca’s faculty in 2018—started her research with a simple question: What triggers the onset of celiac disease?
“At Vanderbilt, I worked in the lab of Dr. Terry Dermody,” Brown said. “We were looking at the idea that reovirus, which infects the intestines, could potentially cause an autoimmune disease called celiac disease.”
When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their bodies respond by damaging the intestines, which can lead to malnutrition and even death. Brown and her fellow research scientists knew that something had to trigger the disease, and they hypothesized it might be a viral infection.
“There are plenty of people who have the genetic susceptibility, but only 1 percent of the population gets [celiac disease],” Brown said. “So we thought there had to be something environmental, maybe even a viral infection that the parents wouldn’t even know their child had, that triggered the disease.”
Up until that point, reovirus was considered pretty innocuous and not thought to cause disease. But reovirus circulates widely in the population, and most children have it before the time they’re in kindergarten, Brown says. The researchers in Dermody’s lab quickly discovered that they could simulate a similar response to gluten in mice that had been inoculated with reovirus and then fed gluten.
“This was a big finding for the reovirus field because for a long time, we didn’t think it caused any disease,” Brown said. “In the celiac field, to be able to pinpoint a virus that might be triggering celiac disease was important because if you know what virus is potentially causing the disease, you can eventually develop a vaccine.”
As an assistant biology professor at Trevecca, Brown is bringing her research and knowledge to bear in the classes she teaches. Teaching General Biology 2 and Microbiology in the middle of a global pandemic, Brown has been able to help her students think critically about what they’ve heard about COVID-19 and apply the principles they’re learning in class.
“I tell my students, ‘You’re the future of biology, of science, of medicine,’” Brown said. “‘People are going to look at your college education and ask you what you think. No matter what, I want you to know your answer—whether it’s one way or the other—I want you to know the science behind it and be confident in your answer.’”
A native of Buffalo, New York, Brown completed a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Her college experience was a turning point in her life.
“I like to tell my students that three things happened to me when I was in college,” Brown said. “I met my husband, I found out that I loved working in the lab and doing research, and I became a Christian.”
Having grown up skeptical of the church, it doesn’t escape Brown’s notice that she’s now teaching at a Christian university. At first, she regarded that fact as a nice perk, but as she’s settled into the community, Trevecca’s Christian foundation is one of the things she loves most.
“I didn’t realize how much I was going to love [working at a Christian university],” Brown said. “I love the people. I love that I can talk about my faith. I love that I can integrate my faith into biology.”
Brown also wants to integrate her love for research into the curriculum. She’s currently thinking through a number of research experiences she hopes to create for Trevecca students in the near future, everything from gathering more data about how much reovirus is circulating in the general population to growing reovirus on campus.
Involving students in active research and helping them understand how what they’re learning applies to real-world situations—like using her background in microbiology to help students interpret what they hear about COVID-19—are valuable teaching tools, Brown says.
“We know from pedagogy that when you can make it applicable to their lives, students maintain more of the information,” Brown said. “These students will be the face and future of biology. They will get further training, but I want to do as much as I can to get them interested now and be a good liaison for the field.”
Learn more about Trevecca’s Department of Science, Engineering and Mathematics.