Adrienne Antonson


How would you describe your background? (I.E. where are you from? How did you first get interested in your area of research? Etc.)

 I am from a small rural town in upstate New York, which is where I learned to love nature and biology. I went to Ithaca College in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of the state, and I had my first introduction to research during my sophomore year. By the time I applied to graduate school, I knew I wanted to study neuroscience and behavior, but I didn’t really know what research at an R1 institution looked like, nor what specific research area I wanted to pursue. I ended up falling in love with the interdisciplinary research that I do now, termed PsychoNeuroImmunology (PNI), which is at the crossroads of psychology (or behavior), neuroscience, and immunology. I actually initially applied to the Animal Sciences program here at the U of I as a Masters student, and before the end of my first year in the program, I knew I wanted to transition to the PhD track. What I love most about PNI research is the systems perspective; biological systems do not, and often cannot, function without signaling inputs from neighboring structures. The nervous system sends AND receives signals from the periphery, including immunological signals and microbial signals. The opposite is also true. And each of these connections ultimately modulates behavior, both in the short term (as in sickness behavior or stress responses like fight or flight) and the long term (as in psychiatric or mental health disorders). My particular interest lies in how immune and microbial signals regulate neurodevelopment and behavior during critical prenatal windows, when the developing organism is still enveloped in and communicating with the maternal environment.

What is your favorite part of the research process? (Learning new things you didn’t expect, presenting the information at conferences, the writing process, etc.)

I can’t pick one favorite part, so here’s three: I am happiest with a pipette in my hand at the benchtop (usually listening to a true crime podcast), at a conference chatting with colleagues about exciting new data over a few beers, or messing around with graphical or visual software to create colorful figures (I’m a visual learner, so I LOVE creating visual learning aids).

What made the University of Illinois a good place to conduct your research?

I definitely had a leg up in knowing how great the U of I is for research because I spent 5 years of my PhD training here, and was exposed to just about every Core facility and research institute. For someone who does interdisciplinary work, the resources that are required for each facet of your research differ, and the U of I happens to have fantastic resources in all of these areas (The Beckman Institute, The Keck Center, the IGB Imagining Core, the Gnotobiotic Facility, to name a few). I also do research with large animal models (mostly swine), and there are very few institutions that not only have research farm facilities on campus, but also have the ability to run large animal studies at the BSL2 level (biocontainment), which is essential for the work I do with live viruses. And, of course, the people are wonderful, friendly, and welcoming!

If you were not in your current field of research, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t researching within my field, I would definitely be a Developmental Biologist. If I wasn’t doing research at all, I would likely be working with animals in some capacity (trainer, veterinarian), or I’d be an artist (painter, photographer, sculptor) or an athlete.

Can you describe a moment where you failed?

The most recent moment I can recall where I failed was when I was trying to do too much at once, and didn’t realize the burnout before it was right on top of me. As a result, the experiment I had invested in didn’t turn out as planned. Every time something like this happens to me, however, I’m reminded of what my Mom always told me, and still does: “Our greatest failures or hardships always lead to the greatest growth”. So I have learned not to dwell on failure, but to focus instead on what I can learn from the experience.

What do you do in your spare time?  

I live with my awesome husband in an old house off of Clark Park that we just purchased, so we spend a lot of our time scheming about paint colors and epoxy basement floor finishes. I also spoil my two rescue cats, read/listen/watch true crime, go on runs or hikes, or spend my time in the kitchen cooking, baking, or mixing cocktails. I recently got into cyclocross, and survived my first race (which was half the distance everyone else did, and where I got lapped by adolescent boys with years more experience than me), so now I’m looking forward to next season and I’m on the hunt for a colorful CX bike (I’ll show those kids next year)! We are also planning to add a furry canine to our family, and someone just turned me on to something called canicross, so that may also be in our future.

What’s a fact about you that people don’t expect to learn?

If I didn’t go to college to study Biology, I would have gone to a fine arts school. In fact, I had a portfolio prepared and a few schools picked out before I decided that I should make the practical decision to get an education that would land me a paying job one day. In reality, I know that I can do art anywhere or any time, but I can’t do science anywhere or any time. My last year of undergrad, I chose to study abroad in Milan, Italy instead of graduating a semester early; this gave me a chance to really immerse myself in art and take art courses. I would never want to give up that experience, and by the end, I knew I missed science too much to give that up! 

If someone in the program, a student or a colleague, needed to refer to you but did not know your name, how would you prefer for them to refer to you?

Professor or Doctor is fine.