Rebeccah Lijek

Rebeccah Lijek, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences

Name: Rebeccah Lijek

Title: Assistant Professor

Department: Biological Sciences

Areas of study: cell and molecular biology, immunology, microbiology, women’s health

Research focus: Rebeccah Lijek investigates how bacteria interact with the immune system to cause infectious disease. Her lab at Mount Holyoke specifically studies the molecular mechanisms required for Chlamydia trachomatis to cause immunopathology in the female genital tract. In her postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School, she examined how bacteria trigger chronic inflammation and mucosal pathology. Lijek’s research training inspired her to pursue a career providing similarly transformative biomedical research experiences to liberal arts students. She shares her passion for science through service on the boards of science advocacy and communication nonprofits and through teaching cell and molecular biology, immunology, microbial pathogenesis and science writing.

What drew you to your area of study: My area of study, the molecular mechanisms of infectious disease, sits at the intersection of two things that I feel passionate about: biology and social justice. Sexually transmitted infections in particular are fascinating to me because they invoke questions at many levels: questions about the pathogen’s interactions with the host immune system; questions about personal choices and relationship dynamics; and questions about access to healthcare and social stigmas. I’m excited to take a liberal arts approach to engage Mount Holyoke students in thinking about these bigger interdisciplinary issues as they investigate fundamental biological questions that could inform the design of vaccines and therapies to improve human health.

What appeals to you about being a professor at Mount Holyoke: Coming from my training at large research institutes, I want to continue to do impactful biomedical research but in a setting that more closely shares my values of inclusivity and mentoring in science. The biological sciences department at Mount Holyoke — the faculty, the students, the facilities — impresses me as a place where innovative science is done within a community that celebrates diversity and scientific citizenship.

What do you like about teaching: Witnessing someone learn something — to go from not understanding to understanding — is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I feel so grateful to be able to share my love of biology with students and see them grow into colleagues and friends.

What do you look forward to at Mount Holyoke: Mentoring self-motivated students to apply their knowledge and curiosity toward answering hard and important questions. The pathogen that my lab studies, Chlamydia trachomatis, disproportionately affects young women, so it feels especially meaningful to me to empower that same demographic to work on solving these problems. Also, living on this beautiful campus and joining this vibrant community.

Favorite previous work/volunteer/research/teaching experiences: A formative experience for me was volunteering at a needle-exchange program in Philadelphia. Some people came for the clean needles and condoms, others for the free snacks and others just for someone to talk to without judgement or fear. That experience taught me the power of listening — that being heard makes a difference and connects us in our shared humanity — and the importance of prevention and education in improving human health.

Favorite class as an undergraduate: Probably the most memorable class I took as an undergraduate at Haverford College was a core 200-level course in cell and molecular biology. Learning how life works at the molecular level felt like opening a door to C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia.” Ever since then I’ve been hooked on exploring that unseen world. I’m thrilled to co-teach the equivalent course here at Mount Holyoke.

When you are not working: I like to cook, eat, read, play, sing and explore the outdoors with my husband, daughter, cats, parents and my new Mount Holyoke friends.

Read more about Rebeccah Lijek.