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Dr. Andrew Olive - Reflecting on the Road to Research

All trainees in biological research look forward to the culmination of their hard work; whether it be the moment that they complete their doctoral program, open their first company, or earn formal recognition. On July 1st of 2018, Dr. Andrew Olive reached that point, receiving the keys to his own lab at Michigan State University. At that moment, with his collegiate and experiential learning behind him, Olive reflected on the road and the people that led him to his lab.

Born in Kuwait, Olive’s route to his lab and Michigan State University was bound to be anything but straight, even though his scientific nature was obvious from the beginning. “I’ve always been interested in science.”, Olive says. “My dad was a scientist and my mom worked in healthcare, so I was always surrounded by it.” With those surroundings, Olive was quick to find his innate curiosity for how things worked and how he could dissect different functions. When he enrolled at the University of Kansas, he used his scientific mindset to start on the pre-medical track, but research was always the direction that Olive always gravitated towards. He didn’t see that until later in his college career when he took on a role in a research lab to gain some extracurricular experience. This supportive lab environment, run by Drs. Wendy and Bill Picking, allowed him to begin his own project, which investigated how the intestinal pathogen Shigella flexneri could sense cues that are present in the human gastrointestinal tract to cause disease. With his curiosity in high gear and a project that produced exciting discoveries, he quickly scrapped his ideas for medical school and focused on a career in microbial research.  Having a plan in motion, Olive thrived in his remaining undergraduate courses and later continued on to Harvard University for his Ph.D., studying under Dr. Michael Starnbach, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School for postdoctoral research, studying under Dr. Christopher Sassetti.

Starting up his own lab, Olive’s research interests are a fusion of topics that he encountered throughout his training. The Olive lab is interested in understanding chronic bacterial infections. In particular, the lab studies two important pathogens: Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the number one infectious disease killer worldwide, and Chlamydia trachomatis, the number one cause of bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Both of these infections are characterized by their ability to avoid immune clearance and cause significant inflammation and tissue damage. Improving the immune response to kill more bacteria (known as “antimicrobial resistance”) or increasing an infected individual’s ability to withstand/prevent the inflammatory damage (known as “disease tolerance”) is the overall goal of the Olive lab. Through a combination of approaches that examine both the host immune response and the pathogen directly, the Olive lab has defined important immune networks that control inflammation, pathogen growth, and the adaptive immune response. The Olive lab is focused on understanding how each of these networks control antimicrobial resistance and/or disease tolerance. Once they understand how they work, they can then begin to identify ways to target them with small-molecules or through vaccination. Olive hopes his research group will contribute to developing more effective, and sorely needed, therapies to improve C. trachomatis and M. tuberculosis infection outcomes.

While Olive’s training offered amazing experiences, being at Michigan State University affords unique opportunities that Olive treasures. In his first year at MSU, Olive has come to know his department as one that “not only does amazing research but also has amazing people that care about each other’s success.” The diverse research environment creates new insights that he didn’t often find at his medical school based training, and is constantly providing new motivation and ideas. In particular, Olive is thankful for his interactions with Dr. Robert Abramovitch, as Abramovitch offers both synergizing research and advice for Olive starting his lab. Additionally, Olive continues to maintain relationships with his previous mentors, who taught him how to do great science, how to enjoy research, and how to care for others. Olive is now a mentor himself, responsible for multiple undergraduates, graduate students, and a technician, and hopes to have a similar impact on his lab members as his mentors on him. Since he began his lab a year ago, the research in his group has expanded and flourished with new ideas and perspectives. Over the next year, Olive expects to see the lab integrate more into the MMG and MSU communities, as he is passionate about science outreach and impacting the general public. 

At the end of the day, Olive feels incredibly lucky to be where he is. In the last decade, Olive has grasped a career that fit his scientific interests, built great relationships with his colleagues, and established a lab at Michigan State University. That journey is undeniably incredible, and he’s shared it with past mentors, new colleagues at MMG, and most importantly, his family at home. While Olive loves the lab environment, he realizes that no place is like home. “My favorite thing is just hanging out with my amazing wife Jessica and my adorable 18-month old daughter, Grace. It is so special to take time away from the bench (and computer) with them.” Now, one year since Olive moved into his lab, he regularly reflects on the road that got him there, and he’s found that it was more than just the hard work but rather the impactful people that got him to this point.


By Rachael Stohlin