Nikhil Thomas, assistant professor

A day in the life

Nikhil Thomas, assistant professor

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The nature of Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine allows people to collaborate—in fact, it’s highly encouraged. If you can produce science that understands something at the molecular and biochemical level, the impact is that much greater.

Collaborating to prevent pathogenic infection

Few Canadians think much about whether the food on their plates is safe to eat, or the water from their taps potable. It’s only when there’s a sudden boil-water advisory or an outbreak associated with e-coli-contaminated meat or vegetables that people worry.

But Nikhil Thomas, assistant professor in Dal’s Microbiology and Immunology Department, thinks about it all the time.

“The research in our lab is at the leading edge of looking at host-pathogen interactions,” Dr. Thomas says. “Our big thing is food and water safety, using pathogenic e coli as a model organism.”

His experiments aim at understanding the mechanisms of infection—and finding ways to prevent infection. “We use recombinant DNA technologies, which are so advanced that we can label individual proteins in live cells and watch them in real time,” he marvels. “We can see the infection as it’s actually happening.”

“Understanding this is crucial to preventing that initial colonization, when the pathogen does its first nasty trick,” Dr. Thomas smiles. “If we can stop that, then we might be successful at stopping the progression of a dangerous disease.”

But knowing what circumstances allow an infection to happen is also key to prevention: “Where did the outbreak originate? How can we get better at detecting where pathogens are?”

In Dr. Thomas’ view, better communication along the supply chain is crucial, from farmers to distributers and retailers, to lawyers and microbiologists like himself. And together with a team, he’s developing a training program that he hopes will help address that.  

“Organizations in the Atlantic food industry are helping us assess the existing needs,” Dr. Thomas says. And, he emphasizes, internship opportunities created by the program “will give students experience in industrial settings and help them develop professional business skills.”

This interest in training today’s science students to become tomorrow’s scientists extends to his work in the classroom. “I really enjoy teaching,” he says. “It’s one of the best aspects of being in an academic environment.”

And it’s another opportunity for collaboration. He coordinates a second-year Introduction to Microbiology and Immunology course that “is taught from a multidisciplinary perspective,” Dr. Thomas explains.

“I teach bacteriology, one colleague teaches virology, and another teaches immunology. Intertwined throughout is an understanding of cancer," he adds. "A variety of viruses cause cancer, and the immune system tries to fight off cancer. It provides a nice introductory view of how the discipline is so diverse and interrelated.”