Isaac Chiu joined the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology as an assistant professor two years ago, but he was no stranger to the Harvard Medical School community. A former Harvard College undergraduate, Chiu earned a PhD in immunology in an HMS lab and completed postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital before becoming a member of the Quad faculty.
HM News chatted with Chiu about what’s kept him in the HMS ecosystem all these years, what life is like at the intersection of three scientific fields, and the research inspiration he has gleaned from Winston Churchill.
Research focus: We work at the intersection of microbiology, immunology and neurobiology. These fields interface in really interesting ways. My lab has two major themes: how microbes talk to the nervous system in pain and itch, and how neurons talk to the immune system.
We study peripheral sensory neurons, which innervate the skin, gut and lungs. These are places that often also have microbial communities or pathogenic invasion. We know the immune system responds to insults at these sites, and our evidence suggests that sensory neurons are also part of the conversation during infection and inflammation.
It’s an exciting area, and there are a lot of open questions. Could we harness the nervous system to modulate our immune system against pathogens? Or vice versa: Could we modulate the nervous system using different immune or microbial components? If we can identify how neurons respond to or are silenced by microbes or immune cells, could we then treat pain? When we treat pain, does it have an effect on immune response and inflammation? What about when people take opioid medications, beta blockers and other drugs that block different branches of the nervous system?
Excitement at the edge: There are a lot of new technologies out there to finely tune the study of neurons, including optogenetics. There are also pharmaceutical ways we’re exploring some of these questions. The exciting part is that our research is fundamental on one hand, but there are many potential clinical applications that could come out of the work as well.
Why HMS: There’s something about being in this environment. It’s so stimulating: the people, the lectures, the expertise in different fields. One of the features of Harvard that is unmatched in most places is you’ll find somebody who is an expert in almost every area you’re working on.
Outside the lab: My wife and I have two little kids, so mostly I’m here or I’m taking care of them at home. We like to go to the Science Museum. We went skiing recently, which was my wife’s and our four-year-old’s first time. Our daughter just turned one, so she’s a joy to be with. I used to ski more and hope to get back to it. I also like kayaking, mostly on the Charles. It’s relaxing and fun.
Man of action: I like reading, but I don’t have much time, so I listen to audiobooks. I really like biographies and nonfiction. It’s inspiring to learn about people. Maybe it’s the nerd in me! I listened to this huge tome about Winston Churchill. He was quite a character, of course. He had no fear. When he wanted to do something, he didn’t dawdle around. A man of action, I guess.
Sometimes I think I should learn from that. Sometimes as scientists we spend too much time planning. It’s good to be hypothesis-driven and important to be careful, but sometimes you need to just try things, because that’s where the big breakthroughs come from. People do something and get an unexpected result, and then they’re brave enough to go after it.