Microbiologist Jacqueline Kimmey named Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Kimmey’s lab is investigating how susceptibility to infections is influenced by the daily biological cycles known as circadian rhythms

Jacqueline Kimmey
Jacqueline Kimmey (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

The Pew Charitable Trusts has named Jacqueline Kimmey, assistant professor of microbiology and environmental toxicology at UC Santa Cruz, a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. Kimmey will receive a $300,000 award over four years to support her research on the role of circadian rhythms in susceptibility to infectious diseases.

Bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, a leading cause of bacterial pneumonia, can cause infections that are either asymptomatic or life-threatening. According to Kimmey, this variability may be influenced by our circadian clock, the cellular timekeeping system that regulates our daily rhythms in sleeping, eating, and a variety of physiological responses, including immune system dynamics.

Many studies have found links between disease and disruptions of this biological clock. For example, shift workers—whose circadian rhythms are frequently disrupted—are more prone to developing respiratory infections.

“There is a lot of evidence that circadian rhythms affect disease outcomes, but there has not been a lot of research to understand the underlying molecular mechanisms,” Kimmey said.

Her lab has found that exposure to a variety of bacteria resets the circadian “time” of mammalian cells by boosting the levels of a core component of the molecular clock. Kimmey is now working to identify the bacterial components that trigger this reset, track how the clock’s molecular components respond during live infection in zebrafish, and determine how the time of infection affects disease severity in mice.

This research involves an array of cutting-edge techniques in molecular genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. The results could lead to novel strategies for using the body’s clock to boost our natural immunity to infectious disease.

“The long-term goal of my research is to understand what underlies variation in infectious disease outcomes,” Kimmey said. “Circadian rhythms are a huge variable that is not well understood. What time you get exposed could make the difference between getting pneumonia or not, but we don’t know how that works.”

Kimmey earned her Ph.D. in molecular microbiology and microbial pathogenesis in 2016 from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. After a postdoctoral fellowship at UC San Diego, she joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 2019.

The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides funding to young investigators of outstanding promise in science relevant to the advancement of human health. The program makes grants to selected academic institutions to support the independent research of outstanding individuals who are in the first few years of their appointment at the assistant professor level.