In Touch With...Peter Hudson

Peter Hudson came to Penn State a decade ago from the University of Stirling, in his native Great Britain, to serve as the Verne Willaman Chair of Biology. In 2005 he became director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. The Huck provides a foundation for research collaboration across colleges and departments in the University, offering resources for faculty and students to carry out interdisciplinary scholarship. We sat down to talk with him to learn more about the Huck.

Q. Why was the Huck Institutes founded?

Peter Hudson talking
Photo: Patrick Mansell

A. The Huck has existed for almost 15 years and was set up when current University President Rod Erickson was Vice President for Research. The life sciences are more than just biology and biochemistry—the Huck is where these disciplines sit at the crossroads between engineering and medicine. They encompass the physical sciences, including computer science. This broad interdisciplinary approach allows us to address such pressing issues as the emergence of new diseases, developing crops and plant systems that can feed the world given the impact of climate change, and how we can develop personalized medicine for all. We want to help break down the silo effects that existed between the academic colleges and identify the synergy that emerges with interdisciplinary teams.

Q. What is an example of cross-college collaboration within the Huck?

A. If you look at just one site—our new Millennium Science Complex—we have faculty from six colleges housed within the building. We have a center for neuroengineering, which brings in engineers, medics, biologists, agriculturalists, and bioengineers who are working together on aspects of how the brain works, looking at the interface of materials and the brain and infections of the brain. We also have a big group working on infectious diseases that spans scales from proteins to pandemics and from vectors to vaccines. Specific issues include such challenges as how to control vector-borne diseases like malaria. Vector-borne diseases are still causing massive mortality throughout the world, and it’s going to take humans at least 20 years to solve that problem. We have researchers working on a wide variety of biological and social aspects of malaria.

Peter Hudson talking
Photo: Patrick Mansell

Huck researchers are predominantly from the hard science and agricultural science areas, but there are also people from the liberal arts and other colleges who are interested in some of the social science components of these issues.

Q. How are researchers from the liberal arts working with infectious diseases?

A. If you have an infection, such as HIV, there is a certain stigma associated with it—what are the consequences of that? We are also interested in how you can roll out vaccines in an efficient and effective way, so we must identify when epidemics are going to occur and how people will behave—that’s social science. We've undertaken modeling approaches to predict when measles are going to break out in Niger, utilizing Landsat imagery, virology, and the behavior of people, and then given simple predictions to vaccine organizations like Medecins Sans Frontier and the World Health Organization.

Q. What is the role for undergraduates at the Huck Institutes?

A. Undergraduates are the next generation of scientists, so their involvement in research is imperative. It’s an area that I believe needs to be made stronger at this university. We have designed part of the Millennium Science Complex to accommodate undergraduates who come and work with different projects. In my own lab, for example, I have eight undergraduates who are undertaking field work, lab work, and entering data to figure out the role of infections in the massive explosion of mice we have seen in the Northeast over the past two years.

Peter Hudson talking
Photo: Patrick Mansell

Q. What got you interested in a career as a scientist?

A. I was born a biologist. From day one I was interested in nothing but birds and insects and flowers—totally different from the rest of my family—but my life and enjoyment is centered on my lifelong fascination with wildlife and biological processes. I got my first bird book when I was four years old, and I still spend every minute I can studying biology. Check out my wildlife photographs on peterhudsonphotos.com to see what I do on vacation.

Q. So your personal research interests are nature-based?

A. Totally, and while my training is as a population biologist and a behavioral ecologist, I am now using an ecological approach to study how diseases spread. I’m particularly interested in emerging diseases that come from wildlife and spill over into humans and the impact of diseases on wildlife populations. I want to know why, when, and where the critical processes of transmission occur—a poorly understood area of infectious disease biology.

I am the Verne Willaman Professor of Biology. Mr. Willaman endowed my position, which gives me the flexibility to explore novel areas of science. I am currently working on disease in wolves, pneumonia in bighorn sheep, and desert tortoises’ disease systems, examining the process of disease invasion to get new insights into how we can control emerging diseases. Income from the endowment that Verne created has allowed me to initiate that. Sadly Verne died recently, but his legacy lives on at Penn State.

portrait of Lloyd and Dorothy Huck

Lloyd and Dorothy Huck

Q. Lloyd and Dorothy Huck—the Institutes’ namesakes—have been extraordinarily generous in supporting the life sciences at the University. Do you have many opportunities to interact with them?

A. Yes, Lloyd and Dottie Huck are very good friends to both the University and the Huck Institutes. I always find it very stimulating to talk about science and biomedicine with them. They live nearby, and I see them regularly at lectures and meetings they attend on campus. Lloyd and I are trying to build opportunities for our medical students here. The Hucks were very excited by the biotechnology classes we run through the Institutes. They are very special and inspirational people—this University is really lucky to have alumni like them.

Q. What accomplishments are you particularly proud of?

A. I see my role very much as a champion for the faculty in representing their views, but I also try to provide science leadership and work with faculty to build our research strategy. For example, with my colleagues in the Huck I have helped to secure funding for instruments and equipment that allow researchers to do things they didn't even know they could do. We've built new facilities and buildings—like the impressive Millennium Science Complex—to work on the interface of materials and life sciences. We are building new capabilities in areas such as metabolomics and retaining our presence in genome analysis. We continue to invest in new instruments, like next generation sequencers, and we've revolutionized our proteomic capability. We are in the process of getting two new electron microscopes for the MSC to improve our imaging capabilities. I think this all helps to attract and retain the very best faculty.

Last Updated June 11, 2013