Collin Diedrich

Thinks Differently

From our Spring 2014 issue. See all our past issues here.

In grad school, Collin Diedrich (Molecular Virology and Microbiology PhD ’12) was the guy who always sat in the front row with his recorder—the overachiever, classmates figured. “And I was like, No, I have to go back and listen to them just to level the playing field,” he says.

Diedrich has struggled with reading and learning disorders since grade school. Now, as an emerging scientist, he’s eager to help others facing the same uphill climb.

Diedrich started blogging about his experience as a PhD candidate with learning disorders while at Pitt. Getting there took years of extra elbow grease and a lot of support—which he happily reports he had the whole way through, including his time in the lab of Pitt professor of microbiology and molecular genetics JoAnne Flynn. He is on hiatus from posting to his blog, (LD stands for “learning disorder”) while he focuses on research and grant applications. He plans to revive his blog—and eventually turn it into a book.

Now, as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Diedrich investigates HIV/TB coinfection immunology. About a third of the global population has TB, most of which are latent cases—however, those who also have

HIV are far more susceptible to reactivation. The reasons why have proven elusive. Traditionally, groups around the world have studied these immune processes in human blood samples. At Pitt, Diedrich worked with Flynn and other collaborators to develop a novel nonhuman primate model. Now, Diedrich has added a helpful new piece to the puzzle: human tissue samples from the granulomas themselves—the nodules of immune cells in the lungs that attempt to wall in the infection. Granulomas, he says, are “right where the disease lives.” Diedrich is gathering and analyzing these rare, coinfected specimens throughout Western Cape, South Africa, and developing a new hypothesis regarding how HIV changes granuloma functions.

Diedrich’s learning disorders, though a hindrance in many ways, have also helped him as a scientist, he says—making him diligent and obsessive and teaching him that no one can know everything. Science has to be collaborative, he says.

“It does take me longer to process things. But because I’m able to think a lot about things, I feel like the end result is often that I can come up with a new idea or a new way to approach a problem.”