April 11, 2022Print | PDF
Stephanie DeWitte-Orr, an associate professor in Wilfrid Laurier University’s departments of Biology and Health Sciences, has been named University Research Professor for 2022-23. The annual internal award recognizes excellence and leadership in research and provides time and funding for the winner to complete a major research project.
DeWitte-Orr's research program focuses on how immune systems innately respond to viruses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been developing two therapeutics which could be used to prevent respiratory virus infection and discovered a new cell line that can be used to study coronaviruses.
“It feels wonderful to be selected for the University Research Professor award,” says DeWitte-Orr. “It is very validating to have my work highlighted in this way.”
As recipient of the University Research Professor award, DeWitte-Orr will dedicate her $10,000 research grant toward the study of trained innate immunity. It is widely understood that adaptative immunity – which develops when a person’s immune system responds to a foreign agent, such as an infection – has memory, meaning it can prevent future disease by remembering how to respond to specific threats. This is critical to the efficacy of vaccines.
“However, we are just starting to understand that the more ancient arm of the immune response, the innate immune response, also has memory,” says DeWitte-Orr. “I would like to see whether viral double-stranded RNA can be used to train the innate immune response. This work will impact how we view innate immune responses, particularly after repeat exposures to pathogens.”
Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) is a molecule produced by viruses, but not by healthy cells. Cells use dsRNA as a “flag” to detect they are infected with a virus, triggering antiviral responses.
“The students in my lab motivate me. Sometimes it’s their deadlines, sometimes it’s their questions, but mostly it’s their interest and engagement. Their enthusiasm for science is contagious.”
“Dr. DeWitte-Orr is working on the cutting edge of virology, a field that has evident, wide-ranging impacts on our lives,” says Jonathan Newman, Laurier’s vice-president: research. “It is exciting to see her collaborate with industry to realize the potential of her discoveries.”
In addition to her teaching responsibilities at Laurier, DeWitte-Orr serves as the associate dean of research and graduate studies in Laurier’s Faculty of Science. She is a prolific author who has written 50 publications in peer-reviewed journals and three book chapters. DeWitte-Orr has attracted significant research funding for her laboratory, securing more than $3.5 million in external grants since joining Laurier in 2011.
Mentorship is embedded within DeWitte-Orr's research program. She has trained 70 students and postdoctoral fellows during her tenure at Laurier.
“The students in my lab motivate me,” says DeWitte-Orr. “Sometimes it’s their deadlines, sometimes it’s their questions, but mostly it’s their interest and engagement. Their enthusiasm for science is contagious.”
DeWitte-Orr is a past recipient of numerous internal and external awards, including early career researcher awards from the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science in 2016 and Laurier in 2018. More recently, her significant contributions to the field of coronavirus research earned DeWitte-Orr membership in the CanCOVID Research Group, an invitation-only network of Canadian researchers working on COVID-19 initiatives.
“The unknown inspires me as a researcher,” she says. “Every research question is pushing the boundaries of what we know and every experiment is one step closer to figuring out the unknown. It is exhilarating.”
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