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Focus: Interdisciplinary Research

Professorship attracts talented new department chair

The assumption that conditions like cancer, obesity, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis are separate and unrelated could be hindering important scientific breakthroughs. But thanks to a generous gift to support a professorship, Tufts has brought a champion of interdisciplinary medical research to its faculty—and she is challenging such assumptions.

Caroline Attardo Genco, Ph.D., is driven to understand if and how seemingly disparate medical conditions might share common underlying mechanisms. Genco was recently selected as the new chair of the Department of Integrative Physiology and Pathobiology at Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM). She will hold the Arthur E. Spiller, M.D., Professorship, an endowed professorship that enables Tufts to attract and retain talented medical researchers.

The Spiller Professorship will allow Genco to continue her studies of genetic elements—in both pathogens and their hosts—that contribute to inflammatory responses. Her research will focus on interdisciplinary approaches to understanding immune-mediated diseases. “This is the wave of the future in disease research, to look at the whole disease, not just one particular pathway,” Genco says. “The professorship will be essential to my ability to do this work."

Genco points to diseases like cancer, autoimmune disease, and obesity as examples of what happens when the immune system goes awry. When the system designed to protect us from infection misfires, it can have a devastating effect. Yet the tendency to focus on narrow parameters can render medical research blind to the way diseases are triggered and how they progress.

“Many of us in science work in a vacuum,” she says. “We study one particular pathway but we don’t study the whole disease. For me, the big picture should be the disease, understanding it so we can diagnose and treat it.”

Genco comes to TUSM from the Boston University School of Medicine, where she was a professor of microbiology and immunology, research director for the department of medicine’s section of infectious disease, and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award for research and service. She has served on numerous NIH review panels and editorial boards and was appointed as a scholar of the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

The professorship she now holds at Tufts was created through a generous bequest made through the estate of Arthur E. Spiller, A34, M38, an ophthalmologist who practiced in Needham, Massachusetts, for many years. Dr. Spiller saw the professorship as a satisfying, tangible legacy of his career as a physician and the medical training he received at Tufts. He was married to another Tufts graduate, the late Dr. Sylvia Ruby Spiller, J31, an allergist who practiced in Waltham.

The support of the professorship and the warm, welcoming community at TUSM attracted Genco to the medical school. She was also inspired by the school’s commitment to interdisciplinary research. By sharing research and insights, she hopes her department will look both broadly and methodically at diseases. “Tufts has an openness to innovation that aligns well with my philosophy of science,” she says.