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Bobby Brooke Herrera joins Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to study immunology

Bobby Brooke Herrera joins Rutgers after completing his Ph.D. at Harvard University and founding two biotechnology companies centered around endemic viruses and diagnostic tooling. – Photo by Rutgers Global Health Institute / Twitter

This semester the Rutgers Global Health Institute welcomed a new faculty member, Bobby Brooke Herrera, as an assistant professor of global health and researcher in the Division of Allergy, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, according to a press release

Herrera joined the University after completing his Ph.D. at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and founding two biotechnology companies.

He said his interest in biomedical research began during his undergraduate years when he was studying biology at New Mexico State University. There he conducted research on the Hawaiian bobtail squid's ancient immune system, and at Johns Hopkins University, he studied the role of genetics in autoimmune disorders in African Americans, he said. 

Later, Herrera chose to pursue a Master of Theological Studies with a focus on philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School. He was interested in how religion impacted and continues to impact public health and society, he said.

"I spent two years trekking through Harvard's dimly lit libraries, ultimately pondering how might I be able to improve public health, especially for those who are most vulnerable,” he said. “After my Master's, I was accepted into the Biological Sciences in Public Health Ph.D. Program at Harvard University and joined my dissertation lab at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health."

During his Ph.D. program, Herrera used his interest in infectious diseases to research the Ebola and Zika viruses. He conducted his post-doctoral research at Harvard Medical School, after which he founded E25Bio, which is focused on diagnostic development for neglected tropical diseases, and Mir Biosciences, which focuses on developing T cell-based vaccines for infections and cancer.

He said that his overall goal in research is to improve public health, especially for vulnerable populations. Specifically, he aims to translate information from asymptomatic infections or mild cases of disease into effective vaccines and diagnostic tools, he said.

His lab will examine immune cell responses during cases of mild disease or asymptomatic infection, and compare those to responses mounted during severe disease, he said. 

"My responsibilities are research, education and service. My primary responsibility is to establish an independently funded research program, studying the immunology of infectious diseases," Herrera said. "As I think about recruiting individuals — postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and research assistants — to work in my lab, I'm looking to bring in people who look and think differently from each other."

Herrera said he wants to improve the ease of diagnosing infections by building diagnostic tools with biochemical data and using human trials to test efficacy.

In addition, he said that he is interested in developing more powerful vaccines, especially for viruses that could cause the next pandemic. He said that he will collaborate with industry partners in order to upscale lab findings and implement them in larger populations.

He said that the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has emphasized the need for sharing information across larger communities and collaboration between scientists, which enables hypotheses to be tested in varied groups and enhances research accuracy and scope.

"International collaboration fosters unique curiosity, perspectives and learning," Herrera said. "Often, unexpected hypotheses or discoveries emerge simply because the angles through which questions are being worked on is so diverse."

He also said that scientists need to better communicate their work to the general public, especially because scientific communication is connected with social determinants like economic policies and political systems. These factors can be more significant in influencing health than lifestyle factors or even healthcare itself, especially in regard to pandemic viruses, he said.

"Addressing social determinants is fundamental for improving health and reducing longstanding inequities in health … COVID-19 vaccine hesitation is one such example of where better science communication could have improved health outcomes," Herrera said. 

Overall, he said that he is proud of his current accomplishments but wants to use his time at Rutgers to advance diagnostics and create more potent vaccines for infections.

"Ultimately, I hope that my research impacts in a positive way public health, especially the most vulnerable people who may not have access to proper care," Herrera said. "I hope that my research leads to a foreseeable expansion of effective diagnostics and vaccines that make their way into human trials and then into population use."


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