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Learn about Dr. de Silva’s beginnings at UNC and his experiences in a constantly changing scientific environment

My wife, Amy, and I moved from New Haven to Chapel Hill in 1998 to start our first “real” jobs. I was joining the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Amy was joining the Department of Medicine.  I had interviewed at several institutions, but I knew UNC was right for us because of the highly collegial atmosphere within the Department and the genuine efforts to accommodate both me and my wife.  I am especially thankful to Jeff Frelinger, the Chair of the Department, and Fred Sparling, the Chair of Medicine at the time (and a former Chair of Microbiology) who coordinated the recruitment effort and welcomed us both to Chapel Hill.

The Department was housed on 3 floors (6-8) in the Mary Ellen Jones Building. My laboratory was on the 7th floor in space previously occupied by Phil Bassford.  Phil was a much-loved member of the Department, who had tragically died several years before my arrival in 1998.

I was recruited to the Department as a Bacteriologist.  I had secured two career development awards from the NIH and Arthritis Foundation before arriving at Chapel Hill and I thought success in academia was all about grant funding. I soon realized that my colleagues were a lot more interested in my ideas and scientific goals and not about how much money I raised for my research.  Janne Cannon was the “group leader” for Bacteriology and she encouraged me to focus on experiments instead of wasting my time submitting “half-baked” research proposals.  This was very good advice.

I was inspired by several senior faculty in the Department like Clyde Hutchison, Marshall Edgell, Steve Bachenheimer, Priscilla Wyrick and Bob Johnston, who were passionate about their work.  My laboratory was sandwiched between Clyde and Marshall’s laboratories.  Both Clyde and Marshall are outstanding basic scientists who had made discoveries that were foundational to modern Molecular Biology.  Clyde had an eclectic group of scientists working on interesting problems like the minimal genome required for life or mapping all RNA transcripts generated from a single mammalian genome.  These studies were visionary because this was the era before the establishment of “omics” technologies, which we now take for granted. New ideas and experiments were the fabric of the Department.

Soon after I joined, the Department wanted to recruit someone working on “Bioinformatics” because we had a feeling this was going to be important in the future.  However, we had a hard time writing the job description because no one could define Bioinformatics or the research to be done by the new recruit.  We had several interesting and entertaining faculty meetings to define Bioinformatics Research.  A search was initiated, and Morgan Giddings was recruited as the Department’s and, possibly, the School of Medicine’s first Bioinformatics expert.

Every summer, the Department had a Faculty Retreat, which was held at a Golf Resort on Oak Island.  The location was lovely even though no one (except for Ed Collins) played golf.  During my first retreat, I went on a beach walk with Steve Bachenheimer and casually asked him about his research.  Two hours and many miles later, I was an expert on the many proteins expressed by Herpes viruses and all of their cellular targets!  I quickly learned that if you asked a Steve a question you had to be prepared for a thorough explanation!  Glenn Matsushima introduced me to surf fishing followed by mid-day tennis in the North Carolina heat. We were young and competitive and almost passed out from heat exhaustion.  Glenn introduced me to his tennis group in Durham and 20 years later I still play with Glenn and his group.  We now spend more time talking about various aches and injuries and than actually playing tennis.
From the beginning, I was impressed by the special emphasis on graduate education.  At many large research Universities, the main emphasis is on funding and research.  Students are thrown into the mix to learn by apprenticeship.  At Chapel Hill, I was impressed that the faculty devoted time during faculty meetings, retreats and other gathering to discuss our graduate teaching mission. There is a genuine desire to make sure that we train our students well, while treating them fairly and respectfully.

For example, in the past our students faced an onerous qualifying exam, where they were expected to write a NIH style proposal on a topic completely unrelated to their thesis work. Student proposals were reviewed by a NIH style faculty study section.  The whole process could take 9 months from the beginning to the end.  I felt that the entire process stifled scientific creativity and took time away from independent research. I also felt that, as faculty, we had not adequately prepared the students for this exam.  Over the years, we have had a healthy debate about the qualifying exam and modified the process to be less time consuming and more educational for the student.

When I first joined the Department, we were responsible for teaching Microbiology and Immunology to first year medical students. Given the close connections between the Department and the Division of Infectious Diseases, the students were exposed to a rigorous introduction to these topics through lectures, small group discussions and a laboratory practical that was taught by PhD and MD faculty.  Over the years this course has changed substantially in line with larger national changes in medical education.  The Medical School wanted us to reduce contact time with students, while making the material more relevant to medical practice.  While our faculty had different opinions about the merits of these new trends, I believed that many of us were teaching medical students about topics that we felt passionate about, without fully considering the needs of medical students.

In 2009, Marcia Hobbs (Professor of Microbiology & Immunology and Medicine), Bruce Alexander (Teaching Coordinator of the Department), and I took over the course.  We had several meetings with Fred Sparling, Jeff Frelinger and Tom Belhorn (Department of Pediatrics) to discuss how best to shorten the course and revise the curriculum to better meet the needs of medical students.  The revised course was well-received, and we continuously improved the course over the next 5 years. I am especially indebted to Marcia and Bruce who are passionate educators and I learned a lot from both of them.  In 2014, the School of Medicine decided to completely restructure the curriculum and no longer assign blocks of the curriculum to Basic Science Departments.  While basic science faculty, including several faculty from our Department, still teach medical students, as a Department we play a minor role in the didactic education of Medical students.

I was delighted when Bill Goldman was recruited in 2008 from Washington University to be the Chair of our Department.  It is always challenging to have a new leader from outside, especially given our past history of several generations of internal leadership.  Bill has guided the Department through a time when NIH pay lines were at historically low levels.  He has recruited a cohort of outstanding new faculty to the Department. Our graduate program is thriving and the high attendance at seminars, research progress meetings, and other social events is indicative of the overall good health of our Department. After leading the Department for 10 years, Bill stepped down in September 2018. Following the School of Medicine’s national search to find a replacement, the Department is now led by Craig Cameron from Pennsylvania State University.
Over the past 20 years the character of our Department has changed, in part, because of large changes in Biomedical Research.  When I first joined the Department, the Bacteriology, Immunology, and Virology communities were distinct both administratively and scientifically.  Twenty years ago, a few bacterial genomes and single cell eukaryotic genome had been sequenced.  During my job talk in 1997, Jeff Frelinger mentioned a new technique knows as microarrays that could be used to study genome expression. Between now and then, we have had the “omics”, microbiome, RNAi, and systems biology (I still don’t quite understand this concept) revolutions. Accordingly, the Department and the School of Medicine have changed to keep up with these advances. While we still appreciate the beauty and power of “one gene, one protein” reductionist science, our research and teaching missions have changed to meet these new challenges. Our Department and University have been remarkably successful in breaking out of the Bacteriology, Immunology and Virology silos and forming teams to successfully compete for new funding initiatives.  I am thankful to my past and present colleagues for supporting my entry into the Department as a Bacteriologist and tolerating my recent forays into Virology and Human immunology.