Getting to Know Hera Vlamakis, PhD

By Katie E. Golden, MD

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Hera Vlamakis, who is the Senior Group Leader of the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. With a background in microbiology, she is interested in how the bacteria that colonize the human intestine interact both with each other and their host to ultimately influence health and disease. Her humor and warmth is rare to find in a dedicated and gifted scientist. She has an enthusiasm and curiosity about her work that translates into a constant smile and steady stream of laughter, which makes her a magnetic leader and an effective advocate for her field.

Katie: How did you first become interested in bacteria?

Hera: One day when I was in college, I just wandered into the microbiology office looking for a job. I didn’t have any idea of the work I wanted to do – I even offered to do the dishes in the lab. I was just sort of curious about the research process in general. I happened to meet the Principle Investigator of the lab that day, and he didn’t know what to make of me, so he just . . .  hired me. It was very unconventional. In the following months, he took me under his wing. He was studying antibiotic resistance genes in intestinal bacteria, and I was fascinated.

Katie: So is that when you decided to become a microbiologist and researcher?

Hera: At the time I was actually a pre-med student. Like everyone else, I wanted to ‘save the world one patient at a time!’. After my job in the lab, I volunteered in a hospital. And I hated it. I cried the whole time – it was not what I expected.  I was hoping to feel warm and nurturing, but I just did not connect with the patients. I realized I was much more stimulated by my work in the lab. I loved that I could study bacteria both on the community and molecular level. And, you know, that I liked them more because they don’t have eyes. (She laughs).

Katie: So what was the next step?

Hera: My post-doc work was in bacterial biofilms. I studied the extracellular polysaccharide matrix formed by a specific soil bacteria, and more specifically, the intricate cell-to-cell interactions that allowed these bacteria to carry out specialized functions. It was fascinating to study how the bacteria behaved like a cohesive community. The fluorescent images that came out of the paper were like works of art – they were so beautiful.

Her interest in a bacteria’s cooperative nature, and molecular signaling that allows their colonies to organize and thrive, naturally led her towards the burgeoning field of microbiome research. Her more recent research has allowed her to explore the ways a bacteria’s dynamic nature also plays an intricate role in human host physiology, and has ironically reconnected her with human health and disease. As she joked, ‘the fact that I use words like “epithelial cell” in my daily work just boggles my mind.’

Katie: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Hera: Well I have two small kids, so it really doesn’t matter.