Michael Connor

Hillsborough native Michael Connor is a Pasteur Foundation Fellow and postdoc at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France.

Editor’s Note: The following is the third in a four-part series that profiles Hillsborough natives who are doing remarkable work in the fields of science.

When he was in the fifth grade, Michael Connor earned the opportunity to help take care of the salamanders his instructor was raising in the classroom. That experience, Connor said, represented his first real interest in science. In middle school, he took part in a program where he and other students got to design and build a Mars habitat. This was when, he added, he knew that, whatever he was going to do professionally, it would be somehow related to science.

Through high school, Connor’s interest in science and math grew, and his enthusiasm and fascination with what he was learning was undeniable. He recalled gushing to his dad about how transcription works, or something that was being discussed in AP Chemistry, and his dad said “That didn’t exist when I went to school.”

Connor recognized that advances in science were happening at an incredible rate, and he was determined to buckle in for the ride. “We as a species, discovered penicillin 100 years ago and now are discovering mRNA vaccines,” Connor said via Zoom. “It’s just that perpetual push and drive is on parallel to technology. And since I am sure most of the people being interviewed for this series are in the same age bracket as myself. With the advent of cell phones and Internet, science is the same conceptual advancement. It’s wild to be at the cusp, where you can see major influential advances in society, not just in technology, science and literature, social status and economics.”

It’s no accident that Connor used penicillin as the starting point for his off-the-cuff timeline of advances in science. The Hillsborough native now lives and works in Paris, France, at the Institut Pasteur, founded in 1887 by Louis Pasteur, whose work in germ theory helped lead to the discovery of several ground-breaking vaccines, including penicillin. He has been there since 2017, and 2022 could be a very big year for him and his professional pursuits. 

NEWS OF ORANGE COUNTY: What are you working on right now?

MICHAEL CONNOR: I’m in the process of transitioning to hopefully run my own research group to specifically study how a nasal epithelial and your nose actually is involved in infection. I helped develop a model — I got transition funding and some task awards from Covid — to actually develop a nose organ on a chip to mimic the physiological nasal mucosa, so then you can study molecular processes of disease, and how respiratory pathogens actually colonize your nose and thus transmit to your lungs. But a spin on this is actually a study of the micro biota and how it protects your nose against these pathogens. My future work is to move away from pneumococcus Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes respiratory disease, but also is both the pathobiont, which is a commensal organism, as well as the pathogen depending on the situation. (My work will) strictly study how a commensal organism challenges that dogma that you have pathogens and then you have commensals, and then you have opportunistic versions of both, but to figure out why a commensal provides a protective barrier against disease and part of this is all because of Coronavirus. The epidemiology and studies for Corona infection showed something that’s been known for a while that when you get a respiratory infection, your nasal micro biota disappears and you lose diversity. But no one understands the processes at that molecular level. Why is a commensal organism important for respiratory health and vice versa? So that’s where I’m going to be going.  

NOC: How did you get to this point?

MC: I discovered that commensals and commensal-like response had chromatin signatures and epigenetic regulation. So, your DNA inside your cell recognizes a commensal organism for some reason, and I was able to demonstrate that in one of my publications. For my doctorate actually, I studied yersinia pestis at the University of Louisville, fully BSL3 select agent before forcing everything to actually understand how that organism causes respiratory disease as well. And I discovered a couple of interesting things about how it survives inside of a macrophage. But all of that actually started from being in Cedar Ridge High School, as well as Orange High. I had really great teachers in high school.

NOC: Cedar Ridge and Orange high schools? Did you go to both?

MC: Yes, I went to Cedar Ridge for the first three years, and then I needed four AP courses and gym to graduate high school. But the way the scheduling was set up at Cedar Ridge, I actually couldn’t get gym because all the AP courses were in the morning and all the gym courses were in the morning. I had to transfer to Orange High School, which was fun and interesting at the same time.  

NOC: Where did you go for your undergrad?

MC: I got a track and field scholarship to go to Lees-McRae College. The coach who recruited me, his wife was a teacher there and she taught cell biology. I probably spent more time talking to her than I did the track coach. I ended up going there because Dr. Meyers was just an amazing professor. From there, I actually worked at LabCorp. I didn’t get into graduate school my first go around. After that I got into Louisville for the BSL3 program, so that’s where I went. 

NOC: How did you get into the Institut Pasteur in Paris?

MC: I met Dr. Hamon, the woman I’m working for at the Institut Pasteur, in 2014. She was, at that time, in the process of building her own lab transitioning. I was still a PhD student. In the process of me finishing my doctorate, she and I kept in touch. She basically recruited me to be her first postdoc. That’s how I ended up here. I literally had never been outside the U.S. The first time I left Hillsborough was to do my PhD in Kentucky. I got on a plane in January 2017, flew halfway across the world, and I haven’t been back since.

NOC: From what you mentioned earlier, it sounds like the pandemic has had a significant effect on what you’re doing.

MC: Yes, since 2019, it’s severely shifted the way people look at the stuff I was doing, as well as the stuff I’m going to be doing, and what I’m building my career on. It put more emphasis on it. But at the same it’s been difficult to do science that aren’t my task-award project-related stuff with Covid. France was in a much longer period of lockdown. For almost half a year, I basically lived in my house. Luckily, my partner and I we were expecting a child around that time last year, so it gave us something to do. Covid has impacted a lot, and it also changed the field of respiratory disease, I think permanently. The disease work and vaccine is important because it shows a fundamental difference in how our respiratory system — breathing, lungs, nose — react to things, and different people are fundamentally different, but not every person reacts to a pathogen in the same way. I think Covid, and the last basically two, three years, have highlighted that we know nothing from the standpoint of individuality in respiratory disease, and how pathogens, viruses, and bacteria affect our respiratory system for diseases needs to be studied more. Also, how those molecular processes and cellular processes start with your nose to your lungs is key to understanding and predicting respiratory severity in disease as well as recovery. We’re now seeing the long-term effects of intubation and Covid cases that have a severe impact on how your body will function for the rest of your life. And I think we don’t really understand enough about those systems to really say we have a firm grasp on how to develop the next generation of biomarkers and therapeutics. We’ve started, obviously, with the mRNA vaccine. We’ve started, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what’s going to happen next? It’s exciting.

NOC: It sounds as though what you’re studying and experimenting with could that potentially lead to more of an individualized treatment?

MC: One of the major aims of my work is to use the capacity to culture individual nasal samples, which we can do already, but to use that as the core model to understand how you or I would react to a specific pathogen in my organ-on-a-chip type system. The purpose there would be to be able to predict and then to be able to develop a personalized approach to medicine. And not only medicine, but to preventative measures. People who are asymptomatic — or infected but have no symptoms — but are still spreading disease, those people are a very interesting segment of disease because technically, by most standards, they’re going to have a robust immune response. And they’re also, technically, carriers of disease. They are a gateway and host a reservoir, if you will. Those people have an interesting biomarker signature that really needs to be understood and exploited for figuring out how to better design preventative tests, measures, diagnostics, as well as just therapeutics. That’s where I’m really fascinated about my own work. Because the microbiome in your nose and the cellular processes that happen when you get sick or contract something is different from person to person. However, there’s a large segment of society that, if you fall in this range, nothing will happen. So how can we take therapeutics and processes that nothing really happens for that segment of the population and expand it to those people who are most vulnerable to develop additional, new protective measures, so those who are in a high-risk category that we know via testing that this person will be more susceptible to influenza, SARS, pneumococcus, or myriad of other things? How can we give them a boost in immunity? How can we better tailor their therapies? I think that’s really important. We already do similar things for understanding graft-versus-host-disease, or when you get a tissue transplant. How your body reacts to the transplanted organ, similar types of things are now heavily specialized and tailored to that one person. My father had a double lung transplant couple years ago. That was really fascinating how the donors and matches and all the testing that went into his brand new set of lungs to make sure that his personalized risk was very low for rejection. I think we’re at that same level now with technology that we can do that for diseases and bring it to the forefront of how we deal with pathogens and pandemics. Hopefully, we’ll never have another, but it’s really just a matter of time. But mitigation of those risks, I think, is key to humanity’s future from that standpoint. Not so much preventing them but mitigation. We can never prevent everything. We can only mitigate the severity of said issue.

NOC: What enables you to step out and do your own projects and research?

MC: I wrote a grant or two and funded my own work. The work that I’m doing right now, with the development of the organ-on-a-chip and the commensal approach to disease is my own work. The nice part in science, the postdoc actually starts projects for their boss, their mentor. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have mentors that allowed me to be independent and excel, and push my own ideas. My current mentor has been outstanding. She is letting me take this work with me in the future as the principal core of my future lab, which hopefully will happen this year. It won’t be me doing all the pipetting; it’ll be watching other people do to the do all the work. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be doing the work, but there’s only so much one person can do, when you have an army of five or six people, then then stuff can move much quicker. I’ve been very lucky from that standpoint and Institut Pasteur has been very supportive, financially and resource wise, to help shape good ideas, or at least provide the means to explore good ideas. The woman I’m working for, Dr. Melanie Hamon, actually came out of the very established and successful lab from Pascale Cossart, who is one of the founding members of modern microbiology, in terms of science. So, being able to interact with people like that has shaped my career. The conversations are quite fascinating with people who are knowledgeable of things well beyond your scope, if you will.

NOC: How often are you gobsmacked by the environment in which you work?

MC: In general, at Pasteur, it’s every week when I go to a seminar. Some of the stuff is just it’s just outstanding. I would say just the sheer concentration of what actual science happens here. The force of the Institut Pasteur is not microbiology anymore, from Louis Pasteur’s time. It’s science. Everything and anything that has to do with understanding the world around you, happens there. It’s one of the few places, I think, where you can see a seminar about mathematical physical forces on how a cell moves, to inventing a new mouse model, or we invented a new device to look at single cell organisms. I cannot imagine another place. I would never see that level of diversity in a month, much less practically on a daily basis. 

NOC: What do you do for fun, outside of the lab?

MC: Have you seen the museums in Paris? They’re phenomenal. There’s tons of restaurants. And the ability to travel to other parts of Europe is quick and inexpensive.

NOC: Do you miss Hillsborough? If so, what do you miss most?

MC: Oh, yeah. This is gonna sound really bad, but I miss Bojangles. Very, very badly. If there’s anything, I miss Bojangles. The biscuits, the big sweet tea.

NOC: Do you think you’ll come back to the states?

MC: If a position opened up at Duke or UNC, I would definitely apply for it. I would love an opportunity to come back to that area and raise my family, and experience that as an adult versus a teenager or child growing up.

NOC: You would leave where you are now — in Paris — to return to Hillsborough, if the career opportunity presented itself?

MC: I think Hillsborough is at a very unique intersection of about four of the world’s best universities. Right there within 30 minutes of each other.When I tell people in France who ask me where I’m from, they ask me, “Why’d you leave when you’ve got all that resource right there?” And I always tell them the nice thing about having all these resources is it teaches you there’s a lot that you don’t know and you need to actively look for that. It’s not bad. Don’t get me wrong. Hillsborough has a unique capacity to allow you to develop that support, that drive to just go. There’s nothing I think I would have ever interacted with if it wasn’t for growing up in Hillsborough and having people like Mr. Kavanaugh at Cedar Ridge. He was pretty cool. Or, Mr. Collins, who I think now has a PhD in chemistry from Duke, taught chemistry at Cedar Ridge. The level of dedication that community has to nurturing the youth is very few and far between in other places. You can’t get a better upbringing, in my opinion. You can’t get the nice little balance between going fishing, or hiking the Eno on the weekend, and then the next day, get a doctorate from UNC, Duke, N.C. State.