Caetano Antunes joins Molecular Biosciences Faculty

The Department of Molecular Biology at The University of Kansas is pleased to announce Caetano Antunes has joined their faculty and will begin teaching courses starting Spring 2023.

Before making the change to KU, Dr. Antunes was a Researcher in Public Health at Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he led research on the role of small molecules in host-microbe interactions.

You just made a really big move from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Lawrence, Kansas! What drew you to working at KU?

The science scenario in Brazil has been, in general, very tough for the last several years and having lived in the States and Canada before, I knew that I would have better working conditions up here.

I happened to have a friend who is a faculty here, Josie Chandler, and she invited me to give a lecture. When I gave that talk, Scott Hefty was chairing a search [for a new faculty member] and he thought I would be a good fit for that position. So, he and Josie invited me to apply and things kind of went from there, but the idea of working in a place that's more supportive and has adequate resources for my research to move forward was the main driver of our decision to come up here.

What was the work you were doing previously in Brazil and with who?

I had my own lab in Brazil for ten years prior to moving here. After my postdoc in Canada, I decided to go back home and start my career there and like I said, things got really tough. I noticed that some of the things I was trying to do were going to be difficult to get done in Brazil without the adequate resources.  In particular, we're working with small molecules produced by the [gut] microbiome, and purifying these small molecules was a major challenge down there. So, some of the core facilities here at KU and the general infrastructure that we have at KU will allow me to do some of this work much more easily.

Which microbiome are you working on?

We're interested in the gut microbiome and, in particular, how bacterial species present in the gut microbiome produce molecules that have biological activity. Some of these molecules have effects on pathogens, so we're trying to understand the biology behind the interactions between the microbiome, as part of the host, and incoming pathogens and how in the future these properties can be exploited for therapeutic purposes.

We're studying a few different enteric pathogens, but we focus mostly on Salmonella enterica and Vibrio cholerae.

What drew you to that kind of research in the first place?

That started pretty early in my career, my first aha moment, you know. I was still taking undergrad courses when I learned that bacteria could communicate. They produce small molecules, and these small molecules can actually control behavior. That was my very first scientific passion.

I started digging into that a little more and then eventually started working with the gut microbiome and was impressed by the power that the community of microbes that live on us has over host functions and host health in general.

During my postdoc, I took these two areas and decided to put them together. The microbiome being an extremely rich community of microbes, I hypothesized that chemical signaling using small molecules would be important in that environment. I basically just wanted to combine my expertise working independently with the microbiome and with chemical signaling and decided to try to start studying chemical signaling within the context of the microbiome. It all started about 15 years ago and it's been my interest since then.

Are there any particular research opportunities at KU you are excited about?

The stuff that is being done in the department is interesting to me. Josie's a personal friend, but the reason we know each other is because we overlapped in the same lab when I was a grad student, and she was a postdoc. We have similar research interests and some of the other microbiology faculty are doing things that were interesting to me in terms of potential of collaboration.

What have you enjoyed the most about moving to Kansas?

I lived in the Midwest before, in Iowa, and there is a similar vibe here in terms of people being nice and friendly, but I would say even more so here than when I lived in Iowa City. I've observed this both on a personal level, just dealing with people on the streets, but also within the department, just a collegiality in how welcome I felt during my interview were definitely very positive points that made me decide to actually come here. The atmosphere is very relaxed and welcoming, and people really seem to be genuinely interested in doing whatever they can to make you happy and welcome and adapt well here.

What is your background as a researcher & professor?

My previous position was a researcher in a government research institution. There was no undergrad component, but I did teach at the graduate level. I enjoy teaching, you know, someone once said that the best way to learn is to teach. So, there's always a lot of learning for me when I'm teaching. It's nice to see the aha moment that I had when I found out about bacterial signaling happen to other students. It's very rewarding.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

I think that having the freedom to explore things that I find interesting is just amazing. This may sound silly, but when we're in the lab, we're having fun. It's like we're playing with very expensive toys and we're getting paid to do it. The freedom is an important component because having the ability to and the support to go after the questions that interest me is just fantastic and I think, as scientists, we're very fortunate to be able to do that.

Of course, there are struggles, but there are struggles in any profession. But having the opportunity to just go on with it, sometimes even going with your gut feeling on a research question that might become an interesting project is really amazing. Having that flexibility and the ability to listen to your intellect and go with it in new research directions is really a privilege.

After you establish your lab at KU, what classes will you be teaching?

Some of the things that I've taught before and would definitely be interested in teaching are general bacteriology, bacterial pathogenesis, bacterial genetics.

Will you have undergrads in your lab?

I definitely want to have undergrads. In fact, I already recruited three undergrads this week and I'm going to meet another one next week too, to see if he's interested. I think that the more people that want to explore the research possibilities and delve into this playground I just described the better.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like running and swimming, and I also play the guitar […] My parents were not really very musical, but I grew up listening to a lot of good music, and both my grandpas were really into music, so it has always been a big part of my life.

I believe it's really important to keep these hobbies active in order to keep my science going at the best level possible. If you just focus too much on your work, it's not as productive, you need to have these breaks and you need to take care of yourself. It's not only more pleasant because you can do things you enjoy but you become more productive when you can have that balance.

Do you have a favorite thing to do or place to visit in Lawrence?

I like walking down Mass Street and visit the shops. Even though I've done quite a bit of that, there's still lots of shops left to find. I really love the atmosphere of Lawrence, with small businesses and a very progressive attitude. It's really our favorite thing to do, and my kids love it.

What was your favorite class as an undergrad?

Bacterial genetics. My favorite subject was learning how bacteria can regulate gene expression, how they can respond to stimuli, and can assess their environment and respond to it to adapt by controlling the expression of different genes. That was my favorite subject as an undergrad because it just made them seem like super smart and adaptable.

Do you have a neat fact about yourself that you would like to share?

I'm not very old, but I'm 42 now, and just looking back and seeing everything that I've gone through and being here, I'm really excited. I come from a fairly poor family. I’m a first generation college graduate and just seeing how much pursuing my education changed my life has been really incredible.

I have had a fair share of students in my group and I see that sometimes they're going through struggles too, and I find that communicating with them and telling them that it's possible, and that education is their best shot, is very rewarding to me. When I see them going through some of the same things that I did and being able to make progress and get there is really a pleasure. I'm just really happy to be where I am right now and just looking forward to enjoying this for the rest of my life.

We look forward to Dr. Antunes joining the Molecular Biosciences teaching staff next spring and look forward to seeing the innovations that come from his research!