Dr. Nickerson’s research focuses on the “Mechanobiology of Infectious Disease," a rapidly growing research area that her team helped birth over two decades ago with the discovery that the biomechanical force of fluid shear regulates microbial virulence in the foodborne pathogen Salmonella. Specifically, her lab studies the effects of biomechanical forces on bacterial pathogen and mammalian host cellular responses, how these responses regulate the transition between normal cellular homeostasis or infectious disease progression, and the translation of this knowledge to biomedical and biotechnology applications.
To accomplish these objectives, her highly collaborative research blends microbiology, tissue engineering, and physics to study the dynamic interactions between the pathogen and the host that lead to infection and disease. Her research team has developed several innovative model pathogenesis systems to study these processes, including i) characterizing bacterial pathogen responses to physiological fluid shear forces encountered in the infected host and in the microgravity environment of spaceflight, and ii) 3-D biomimetic tissue culture models of human mucosal tissues, especially intestine and lung, which closely mimic the structure and function of in vivo tissues as predictive human surrogates to study host-microbe interactions. Using these models, her team has unveiled novel mechanistic insight into host-pathogen and host-commensal interactions and infectious disease progression by showing that i) low fluid shear is a novel environmental signal that globally reprograms bacterial pathogens by altering their gene expression, stress responses and virulence, and ii) 3-D tissue models respond to infection with pathogens, their toxins, and antimicrobials in key ways that reflect the infection process in vivo, and which cannot be recapitulated by traditional in vitro cell culture models. Her lab was the first group to apply 3-D tissue culture models to study bacterial pathogens.
In addition, Dr. Nickerson’s research team is actively involved in characterizing the “Microbiome of the Built Environment” as it pertains to infectious disease risks for astronauts and biofouling of environmental life support systems of spacecraft, the latter of which is critical for the integrity and sustainability of human space habitats. Her research has flown on numerous NASA Shuttle missions, SpaceX missions, and on the International Space Station.
A full list of Dr. Nickerson’s publications may be found at: