Strength in Community: Spotlight on Joe Rouse
Throughout Joe Rouse’s microbiology journey, he has recognized the importance of a community whose members feel both seen and safe in sharing their authentic selves. “I have put a lot of effort into being ‘visible’ as an out-and-proud LGBTQIA+ scientist, scholar and student,” said Rouse, who is in the last year of his Ph.D. program at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “I want others to see that they are not alone and that we can do this as our best selves, not having to tamp anything down.”
An avid student, Rouse developed an interest in science in his youth. “People have said to me that knowing a thing inside and out takes the mystery and beauty out of it,” he said. “However, I find that knowing the underlying inner workings of biological entities actually reveals the mysticism and beauty of life, rather than detracts from it.” When Rouse was younger, he was fascinated by marine biology; the sea appeared to be an entire world of organisms literally hidden below the surface—a world that humans barely knew about. As he pursued an undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, that admiration transferred to microorganisms. They, too, encompassed an entire universe of complex biological beings and systems hidden from view, some of which directly impact human health.
Microorganisms have their own abilities that make them unique. “This is what fueled my curiosity about science, microbiology and (eventually) infectious diseases—learning the 'rules' of these complex microbiological systems and either how to live in harmony with them or how to fight them off,” Rouse explained.
“When I was young,” Rouse continued, “I was fascinated by science: how water conducts electricity, how evolution works over time and alien-like microbes. However, the only scientific discipline familiar to me was that of medicine, using science to help people, and so I wanted to be a physician.” With life experience, however, his ambitions changed. “As an adult, I learned about clinical and emergency medicine. More importantly, I learned that I did not really have the patience for patients,” he explained. “I developed more interest in finding a curative, upstream solution to health problems than in addressing the downstream issue of afflicted people. I would rather cure the disease for the entire population than treat an individual. This realization motivated me to move toward the research side of medicine.”
Rouse joined the U.S. Army after high school, training as a combat medic and earning a paramedic license. No one in Rouse’s family attended college, owing to financial constraints. “My high school contemporaries had the expectation of going to college after graduation, but that option was not available to me. I had to figure out how to do it,” he emphasized, “on my own.” Earning money for college through military service “was a detour,” he said. “I was older than the other students, nontraditional. On one hand, I missed the traditional ‘college kid’ experience: making friends in your cohort, living on campus and establishing a chosen family. On the other hand, I was much more mature. I lived off campus in my own place, I was grateful not to have to follow some of the 'rules' established for first-year students and exercised greater control over my schedule and academic trajectory.”
Rouse began his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in 2013, where he earned degrees in molecular biology: a bachelor’s degree in 2016 and a master’s degree in 2018. “I’m fascinated by the battle and the balance between humans and microorganisms. I wanted to explore the 2 facets of infectious disease: microbiology and immunology. That’s how I came to study Lyme disease for my doctoral work,” Rouse said. “Lyme disease is a perfect example of why it is important to understand both facets; this disease has a fascinating natural history in that the damage is done not by the infectious agent itself but by our subsequent immune response. The collateral damage produces the symptoms. In the future, I look forward to studying other infectious agents and how we can fight them.”
Lyme disease, an infection with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, can result from the bite of an infected tick. Lyme disease usually causes symptoms such as rash, fever, headache and fatigue. If not treated early, the infection can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system. Today, as part of his Ph.D. program in Robert Lochhead’s lab at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Rouse studies the human immune response to Lyme disease. His research focuses on improving the treatment of patients with persistent symptoms after a bout with Lyme disease, particularly Lyme arthritis (LA), a late-stage manifestation of infection characterized by joint inflammation.
LA may be triggered by peptidoglycan (a component of the bacterial cell wall) that enters and persists within the joints, even in the absence of detectable live infection. “We investigate how this bacterial trigger may drive an unwanted immune response,” Rouse explained. “We want to better understand the mechanism driving inflammation so that we can stop it. This work brings both microbiology and immunology to bear to pursue more effective treatments for LA.” By investigating the immune response, Rouse and his colleagues “aim to find better bacterial antigens or even adjuvant components that are useful in development of a preventative vaccine.” Rouse enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of Lyme borreliosis investigation. “I wanted to learn immunology without losing the microbiology,” Rouse said. “I want to dwell in the space between those worlds.”
Rouse’s group uses primary mouse joint fibroblasts to simulate the cell phenotype of human joint fibroblasts. They evaluate the fibroblast phenotype and determine whether they can modulate T-cell activity in response to gamma interferon and bacterial peptidoglycan, reproducing the conditions in human disease. “We evaluate the responses using a combination of in vitro cell culture techniques and flow cytometry to measure things like cell surface marker expression, cytokine production, antigen presentation, cell proliferation, etc.,” Rouse said.
He credits his undergraduate and graduate mentors along the way in helping him to develop confidence in his chosen pursuit of science. “I’ve always been lucky to have good mentors throughout my life,” he said. During Rouse’s undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Gregory Richards, Ph.D., a microbiology professor, exhibited for him all the qualities of a true teacher, “in every sense of the word.”
Richards encouraged and facilitated Rouse’s professional development, creating space for Rouse to grow and thrive at UW-Parkside. Rouse received his initial exposure to microbiology and laboratory research through Richards. “I was so enthusiastic about doing microbiology with my hands that, even though it was too early to begin the laboratory research requirement for my undergrad molecular biology degree program, Dr. Richards took me in as a lab assistant to wash dishes and make media and buffers just so I could get an early start with training,” Rouse said. “I then did my undergrad research in his lab, studying a metabolic stress response in bacteria called the glucose-phosphate stress response. The work I did in his lab is part of a manuscript in preparation.”
Richards’ mentorship inspired Rouse to enroll in a master’s degree program, for which Richards became Rouse’s master’s degree thesis advisor. Rouse explained, “Professor Richards provided a safe space for students to grow and develop professionally and personally. I completed my bachelor’s and master’s with him, and he encouraged me to pursue my dream of having my own lab by applying for Ph.D. programs. The rest is history.” Creating that safe space, as well as a sense of community, appealed to Rouse. “I want to be like him—someone who provides that safe space for students.”
Rouse considers his superpower to be his facility with “soft skills,” such as networking and storytelling. Part of Rouse’s networking and storytelling prowess springs from a craving for community. “I have the advantage of being comfortable going up to someone I don’t know and striking up a conversation. Science is a social endeavor, after all,” he said. Storytelling, too, matters in science. “What we have to offer to the wider world is our story. We must relay our science in such a way that others will understand it,” he explained. “We have to sell it,”
His soft skills faced a test in 2022. Rouse was selected to speak at the Gordon Research Conference: Biology of Spirochetes. “Most trainees give a talk at the trainee seminar that takes place beforehand. I was fortunate to have been chosen for a presentation at the conference itself, and it was scheduled right after presentations by 2 well-known researchers, whose work I read when developing my own thesis project. It was super intimidating,” he confessed, “But I relied on the fact that I really enjoy telling my story, so I did just that. I received overwhelmingly positive feedback from several established researchers in the field and the opportunity to network with potential collaborators and post-doc mentors. It was a way for me to put my name and face out there and bring attention to my work and the work of my lab.” Rouse remembers it as the first time he felt like an actual scientist making progress in the field rather than “just” a grad student. He was approached by several people after his talk and received email contacts and even offers for future career opportunities. He described the experience as one of the best of his academic career.
Rouse’s experiences confirmed for him the benefits of forming a community with his peers. Reflecting further on the importance of community, Rouse highlighted a concern that he shares with fellow LGBTQIA+ people: personal safety. “We are not always visible. I sometimes feel like I’m alone [in an endeavor].” He uses the image of “pulling double duty,” that is, achieving all the things that everyone must achieve in their career and life while being extra vigilant with interpersonal relationships. “I always have to ask myself, ‘Is the person I’m talking to safe?’”
He expressed delight that ASM welcomes members of the LGBTQIA+ community, sponsoring an LGBTQIA+ reception at meetings, such as ASM Microbe, and organizing an IDEAA Town Hall to provide updates and accept questions about the Society’s progress toward inclusive diversity with equity, access and accountability (IDEAA). In a recorded message played before the keynote address at ASM Microbe 2023, Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, mentioned Juneteenth and Pride Month in Texas and welcomed everyone to his city. “That was enough for me,” Rouse said. “That removed the need for me to pull that double duty. I could relax, feel safe and enjoy meeting my colleagues.”
Rouse spent much of his time growing LGBTQIA+ programming in graduate school and across campus. “Our graduate school did not have an LGBTQIA+ student group, so I worked on extending the one that medical students had to include grad students and students from other programs,” he explained. Once the grad school implemented its own program, Rouse led it and helped connect grad students. Said Rouse, “I want to establish a safe community for all of us, so that we can live authentically in both places.”
He has set his sights on a postdoc position with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For his fellow early-career microbiologists, Rouse offers this reflection: “I’ve dedicated a lot of my time in grad school to mentorship programs that focus on students (undergrad and high school) from underrepresented groups, so that younger students at an earlier academic stage have role models and see that they can truly thrive in higher levels of education.” He continued, “They may not have ever been told they can achieve this. I’d like to be the voice that says, ‘You can do it,’ when they don’t know anyone else like them who has.” Rouse believes that forming community creates the space where people can flourish in personal life and in science—and can feel at home in both worlds.
The ASM Future Leaders Mentorship Fellowship (FLMF) is a 2-3 year program that matches master’s and doctoral students from historically excluded communities in the microbial sciences with experts (mentors) across varied career sectors. If you are interested in becoming a mentor or a fellow, application are open now until Feb. 15, 2024.