Essential for good health, a functioning immune system actively defends the body from harmful foreign matter. Unfortunately, a defective immune system exposes the body to infection and may even attack healthy tissue. Encompassing an array of conditions from allergies to AIDS, immune disorders adversely impact the lives of millions of people, making immune diseases a serious concern. However, finding effective treatments for immune disorders requires understanding of their biological causes.
Enter Dr. Erin Richard, an assistant biology professor here at the College of Charleston and a researcher specializing in immunology. With a doctorate from the respected Medical University of South Carolina, Dr. Richard regularly investigates the human immune system, using the results of her research to suggest potential treatments for immune and autoimmune disorders. Richard’s immunological investigations have received numerous grants, demonstrating her research expertise and indicating a growing scientific interest in this important biological specialty.
As a biochemistry major aspiring to attend medical school, I was intrigued by her research on the immune system and immune diseases (I had heard about Dr. Richard’s research as a student in one of her classes). Fortunately, Dr. Richard was kind enough to accept a request for an interview, which I conducted in her classroom in the School of Sciences and Mathematics Building after class.
Reflecting on her reasons for becoming a biologist, Dr. Richard mentions that the impactful, practical applications of biology drive her passion; she likes that her research can provide important knowledge for medical treatments. Indeed, one of Dr. Richard’s favorite immunological investigations revealed a possible cause of scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. Richard’s research revealed a link between an altered cell signaling protein and scleroderma progression. By altering this protein early in the cell signaling process, Richard produced a chain of reactions that appeared to contribute to the appearance of scleroderma. Because of Dr. Richard and other researchers, new treatments can better target the cause of immune diseases like scleroderma.
Dr. Richard enjoys making these important discoveries through her research, but she also concedes that the research process often frustrates her. As Richard notes, biology research often fails to yield conclusive results, even after researchers spend their valuable time discussing possible experiments with a principal investigator, extensively researching existing information, and carefully devising an experiment. Although obtaining new biological data through research is clearly an arduous process, Richard always loves sharing the results; she mentions that presenting the data at seminars is her favorite part of the research process. This enthusiasm for sharing biological discoveries also makes her an engaging teacher; in addition to research, Dr. Richard also teaches Honors College introductory cell biology and a genetics lab.
This last aspect of Dr. Richard is perhaps the most important of all; her passion for her work can inspire future biologists to continue the fight against immune disorders. With driven immunology researchers like Richard, diseases like scleroderma don’t stand a chance.