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DAA: Colleen B. Jonsson

Colleen Jonsson

Colleen B. Jonsson

Birmingham , AL | Distinguished Ag Alumni: 2007

Careful, measured steps guide Colleen Jonsson, whether she’s pursuing her passion for rock climbing or researching human viruses. And when she says, “I really like the mix of basic and field; I enjoy trying to think about what’s going on in nature,” she’s referring to her work, but she could be speaking of rappelling, as well. Jonsson began her life of science by earning biology and chemistry degrees in 1983 from the University of Missouri, then spending two years at Monsanto, engineering plants for fungal disease resistance. Eager to take the next step in learning, she then headed to Purdue University for a biochemistry doctorate. “I was fascinated by pathogens that affected agricultural crops,” she says. After earning her Ph.D. in 1985, she climbed higher in her knowledge quest, studying the HIV virus for three years as a postdoctoral biochemist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “My fundamental fascination is the interaction of pathogens and their hosts, in the broadest sense and in all aspects,” she says. When she headed to New Mexico State in 1993 as an assistant professor, she intended to return to plant research. But that’s when the state experienced hantavirus outbreaks. “That caught my attention, and I have been working on it ever since,” she says. After a decade in the Land of Enchantment, she brought her interests to the University of Alabama and the Southern Research Institute, where today she’s program leader for emerging infections disease research in the drug discovery division. There, Jonsson oversees a team researching hantavirus, avian flu, RSV, SARS, and other infectious diseases. Their studies include land use practices, climate, the environment, and potential treatments. Those long days of research, data analysis and publishing results call for a physical counterbalance, which she gets climbing the rugged rocks and practicing hot yoga. “Purdue prepared me for various challenges I’ve faced academically, providing me with a broad and fairly deep background. Those were great building blocks. I’ve never felt that I didn’t know where to go for more.”