Steven Szczepanek is an assistant professor in the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science. His expertise includes infectious diseases and vaccine immunology, with research interests consisting of human, agricultural animal and wildlife health. Currently, he has several research projects taking place in his lab: Understanding dysfunctions in immune responses in sickle cell disease to strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae, Mycoplasma pneumoniae and influenza virus; developing vaccines and immunotherapies for foot-and-mouth disease in large animals; and deciphering the mechanisms of an emerging snake fungal disease that has compromised the rattlesnake population in the region. Here is what he said in an interview.
Where did you get your degrees?
I received my BS in microbiology from the University of Massachusetts in 2004 and my PhD in Pathobiology from the University of Connecticut in 2009. I started my undergraduate career as a physics major, and UMass has a good program in that field (not to mention it was close to my home in western Mass). I ultimately decided that I enjoyed the field of infectious diseases more and changed majors to microbiology. When I was looking at programs for grad school I was impressed with the pathobiology program at UConn, and I was very interested in the work that was being done in Dr. Steven Geary’s lab (who would become my PhD advisor). It was an easy choice to make.
I then did a joint postdoc here at UConn and Plum Island Animal Disease Center, followed by a second postdoc at the UConn Health Center.
During my first postdoc, I worked in Dr. Larry Silbart’s lab here at UConn, as well as Dr. Marvin Grubman’s lab at Plum Island, and we developed a new vaccine approach to broaden immunity to foot-and-mouth disease virus. Larry and I actually just received a couple of USDA grants together to further that work; both in collaboration with Teresa De los Santos at Plum Island. I then changed gears for my second postdoc at the Health Center, where I worked in Dr. Roger Thrall’s lab in the Department of Immunology. There I began studying vaccine immunity in sickle cell disease, as individuals with this disease are immuno-compromised but very little is known as to why. I will be furthering the projects that I worked on during both of my experiences as a postdoc in my new lab
What did you do before you came to UConn?
Before beginning grad school, I was a supervisor in the air analysis department at a local environmental testing company. Most of my work revolved around using mass spectrometry to identify pollutants in commercial and residential air samples.
What will your work here at UConn focus on?
My lab conducts research on various aspects of infectious diseases and vaccine immunology. The lead project in my lab right now focuses on looking at gene expression pathways in specific subsets of immune cells in sickle cell mice using next generation sequencing technology. These expression pathways are essential for responding to the pneumococcal vaccine; infection with this pathogen is an important cause of early mortality in people with sickle cell disease. I have recently joined the Institute for Systems Genomics here at UConn/Jackson Labs and will be collaborating with Dr. David Magee in Animal Science on this project.
Name one aspect of your work that you really like.
In my experience as a scientist, there is nothing quite like the moment when you are analyzing the data that you have spent months to generate and you realize that the hypothesis that you generated to drive those experiments appears to actually be correct.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?
I’m an avid blackjack player. I once played at a casino in Las Vegas for 16 hours straight and ended up breaking even.