There are two laboratories at Texas A&M University that tout the name “Threadgill.” But, while they may share a name, each labis devoted to its own unique niche of research.
Dr. Debbie Threadgill, an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB), investigates bacterial-induced diseases, while Dr. David Threadgill, a distinguished professor in the VTPB department and in the College of Medicine’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Medicine—as well as the director of the Texas A&M Institute of Genome Sciences and Society—studies mouse models of cancer.
They started their research careers in Aggieland as graduate students, though their paths never crossed as undergraduates at Texas A&M. David graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology in 1983 and Debbie graduated with a B.S. in animal science in 1980.
They met, instead, soon after David’s graduation, as doctoral students at Texas A&M in Dr. Jim Womack’s lab, studying cattle genes. Their first date was at Mama’s Pizza, which was “the best pizza in town,” according to David.
Who would have guessed love was in the laboratory?
“When you’re spending up to 50 hours a week together, these things tend to happen,” she said.
Much to everyone’s surprise, they showed up at the Womack barbecue together, no one more so than the poor girl Mrs. Womack brought for David as a surprise blind date.
They married in College Station in 1987, with many members of the Womack lab in attendance, and after finishing their doctorates, David in 1989 and Debbie in 1990, the two started their scientific careers first with post-doctoral fellowship positions at Case Western University, and then with professorships at Vanderbilt and the University of North Carolina before finishing up at North Carolina State University and returning to TAMU in 2013.
During their post-doctoral time, their daughters, Caitlyn and Meaghan, were born, and the couple had to balance raising a family with developing their research.
Debbie recalls being torn between her two loves, being a mother and being a scientist. When the former superseded the latter, they collaborated on their research.
“David had some projects that had a bacterial component that I assisted with, and, then, I was looking at some bacterial induced diseases that needed an animal model that he helped out with,” Debbie said.
Although exhausted at times, Debbie believes that working full time helped her be a better mother.
“Continuing to work was beneficial in helping me to appreciate the time with my family more,” she said. “Even though I had limited time with my children, I was much more engaged in their lives and vigilant in their well-being than I think the tendency is for a stay-at-home mom.”
Now that their girls are grown and the Threadgills are back at their Alma Mater, most of their collaborative work involves their graduate students, whose research sometimes crosses the two. Threadgill labs.
As graduate mentors, they’ve adopted their preferred mentoring style—David has a more lassiez-faire approach, emulating their graduate mentor, which he believes allows his students to explore their interests and come into their own professionally, while Debbie provides more guidance for her students.
The issue, she says, is that most students wait until they graduate before questioning what comes next, so Debbie encourages her students to think about their strengths and interests early on in their graduate studies.
“Nowadays,” she said, “there are many more opportunities for graduates than when I was in school, but we are not training for them.”
David agreed, adding, “I think the biggest challenge is there’s not necessarily one best avenue to go, but most students don’t get enough exposure.”
“I encourage students to go and listen to talks that are not necessarily in their field but strike their interest and talk to the speakers afterwards,” said Debbie. “The TAMU Genetics graduate program tries to invite speakers from many walks of scientific life, from writing, to industry, to teaching, and to research.”
Debbie is empathetic with her students because it took some time or her to figure out what to do after she received her bachelor’s degree. But while David quickly realized attending graduate school was something he wanted, it wasn’t until he took summer courses after completing his bachelor’s degree that he learned that graduate school was even a possibility.
Today, for David, it’s all science, all the time, and that’s the way he likes it.
“Science to me is more of a hobby; it’s not really a job,” he said.
His “science mind” is on 24/7 and he never turns it off, while Debbie prefers to have a life outside of the laboratory with her girls.
The summers are ideal for both Threadgills, allowing family and work to connect; the family often travels together for scientific conferences, meetings, and seminars that coincide with summer vacation. During these trips (usually at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, or Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York) the family will set aside time for golfing, hiking, and other outdoor activities, though golfing is the Threadgill family’s preferred sport.
“We told the girls they had to do a sport in high school and they both chose golf,” said David, who taught the sport to his daughters and helped them to become better golfers.
An active lifestyle seems to be the one pressure they imposed on the girls, as, for now, neither Meaghan nor Caitlyn want to be researchers. Caitlyn is studying to be a nurse practitioner at the University of Cincinnati after earning degrees in public health and nutrition, with a minor in molecular biology; Meaghan, an undergraduate animal science major and Spanish minor at Texas A&M, wants to do “whatever job will allow her to own horses,” David said with a chuckle.
Both girls, like their mother, have taken some time to explore their career trajectories.
“When they ask me, ‘mom, what should I do?’ I don’t like to limit them,” Debbie said. “I say, ‘I don’t know what you want to do with your life either so you should try to get work experience in different areas and see what you enjoy most.’”
Often, during their trips, David spends most of his time on the golf course either with his family or with other scientists.
“I’ve got a network of probably eight or 10 scientist friends I know very well; whenever we’re at meetings together, we’ll find a way to go out,” David said, smiling as he adds, “I spend four hours on a golf course with my colleagues and what do we do? We talk science the whole time.”
Reflecting on his career, David said, “there’s a lot of luck involved with it, being in the right place at the right times and knowing the right people,” which sounds a lot like how their relationship came to be in the Womack lab. He goes on to say, “you never have an end to an experiment because you tend to raise more questions than you solve.”
Similarly, their marriage is like a lifelong project through which they learn about each other and themselves.
“You make it as much as you can (with both marriage and research),” David said. “There’s always challenges, but it’s best to look at it from the perspective that nothing is ever finished and nothing’s ever perfect.”
About their Research
Dr. David Threadgill has turned his love for science into a preeminent career as the director of the Texas A&M Institute for Genomic Sciences and Society and the holder of the Tom and Jean McMullin Chair of Genetics in the Texas A&M College of Medicine.
David’s primary research focuses on identifying genetic and environmental factors that lead to differences in disease susceptibility and progression. In 2016, he and his collaborators received a $5.3 million National Institutes of Health grant to study how lead exposure affects humans and a $3.2 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to explore genetic factors that account for soldiers’ differences in response to infectious diseases.
Dr. Debbie Threadgill investigates bacterial-induced digestive diseases such as those caused by Campylobacter spp. Several Campylobacter species are known to infect humans and are the main culprits of bacterial foodborne disease. Campylobacter infection occurs from eating raw or undercooked poultry leading to an estimated 1.3 million illnesses each year in the U.S. Infected individuals usually recover without medical treatment unless the individual’s immune system is compromised by infection (e.g. AIDS) or age (i.e. children or the elderly).
Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of CVM Today magazine.