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Dr. Sean Crosson - An Analogy to Microbial Adaptation

Just as microbes must adapt to their environment to survive, humans must adapt to their surroundings to succeed. Having become a well-cited and recognized professor who studies microbial adaptation, Dr. Sean Crosson knows both points to be true, as it took lots of adaptation to get to where he is today. Sean grew up in a rural area of Texas where he had the freedom to roam the area around his home, which was surrounded by miles of wheat, sorghum, and cattle. However, being far from cities, opportunities in science were harder to find. Even so, a middle school science teacher offered Sean the opportunity to participate in interscholastic science competitions. From these competitions, Sean picked up lessons in biology, chemistry, and physics that were not covered in the classroom, which piqued his interest in the sciences.

Crosson recalls, “Deciding to leave Texas after high school to attend Earlham College changed my life.” Earlham, a small liberal arts school in Indiana, recruited him to run track, and while the school was far from Texas, he was excited for the opportunity to experience a new environment. As a student at Earlham, he spent several months studying in Africa in the same program with Dr. Aretha Fiebig, whom he later married. Sean initially thought he would study medicine and, after graduating from Earlham, was accepted to medical school at UT Southwestern back in his home state. However, he had become less certain about medicine during his final year in college and decided to also apply to PhD programs with Aretha. The process of applying to and interviewing for PhD programs in Biochemistry and Biophysics solidified his decision to pursue a PhD rather than attend medical school.

As a graduate student in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics program at the University of Chicago, Sean studied plant signal transduction processes at the atomic scale. His graduate school mentor, Dr. Keith Moffat, a leader in protein crystallography and X-Ray diffraction method development, encouraged Sean and gave him the freedom to try unusual, and often tricky, experiments. After graduating from Chicago, he moved to Stanford University for his postdoctoral studies, where he worked under microbiology legend Dr. Lucy Shapiro. Shapiro gave Crosson the freedom to explore a variety of topics and helped him hone his interests in the genetic and biochemical basis of microbial signal transduction processes.

Crosson spent the first fourteen years of his independent career back at the University of Chicago studying sensory transduction and gene regulation in the freshwater bacterium, Caulobacter, and the animal pathogen, Brucella. As Sean explains it, “Just as humans see, smell, and feel the world around them, bacteria are able to sense the world through environmental sensor proteins. These proteins promote the survival of bacterial cells in the wild, whether it be in the soil, freshwater, the ocean, or inside an infected animal or plant host.” The goal of Crosson’s group is to develop a greater understanding of how microbes sense and adapt to the world around them. The results that emerge from this work may help to develop new approaches to promote the growth of beneficial microbes, or prevent the growth of microbes that inflict harm. Crosson states, “It’s a real privilege to have this job.”

Even though he was well established as a Professor at the University of Chicago, Crosson was pulled to Michigan State University by several factors. “Over the years, I had interacted with a number of MSU microbiologists.” Whether it be meeting in conferences, study sections, or participating on the same national committees, Crosson says “My interactions with people from Michigan State University were always excellent…MSU provided a great opportunity to be part of a large microbiology program with breadth and strength in fundamental physiology, pathogenesis, microbial ecology, and evolution. Plus, the opportunity to interface with investigators from the plant and animal sciences who are interested in microbes is very exciting to me.”

Since leaving Texas to attend college, Crosson has moved all around the country and adapted his career to different scientific interests. Whether it be his middle school science teacher or his professional mentors, he attributes many of his adaptations to the people who have taught and trained him, saying “The people around you can really shape what you do.” Even having changed in many ways, Sean’s interests outside the lab are influenced by his rural upbringing, whether it be running on trails, camping, or driving around the countryside with his family. From his small Texas hometown to Chicago and East Lansing, Crosson’s career is ever-evolving. Both Crosson and MMG are excited to see what he can bring to MSU.


By Rachael Stohlin