The Story of a Famous Immunologist and How His Student First Described the Ebola Virus

Each year, the LSU College of Science recognizes science visionaries who have contributed to historic discoveries and innovation during our Hall of Distinction ceremony. With the college's 2018 Hall of Distinction approaching, we are excited to celebrate our honorees at the event and in a series of blog posts that pay tribute to the their amazing accomplishments. This year's honorees are field ornithologist Theodore "Ted" A. Parker III, biochemist H. Dupont Durst, LSU Boyd Professor Emeritus Robert O'Connell, immunologist and educator Ronald Siebeling, and microbiologist James "Jim” Lange.

We kick off our series with an interview with Jim Lange. In a special tribute to his mentor Ron Siebeling, Jim is being celebrated as an honoree while at the same time celebrating the induction of his mentor and thesis advisor, whom he personally nominated for this year’s College of Science Hall of Distinction.


 Ronald J. Siebeling, LSU professor emeritus, biological sciences, and 2018 College of Science Hall of Distinction honoree.

Ronald J. Siebeling, LSU professor emeritus, biological sciences, and 2018 College of Science Hall of Distinction honoree.

Ronald Siebeling made a large and lasting impact on the field of immunology as well as the LSU College of Science. Before he died in September 2002, he spent nearly 30 years helping Louisiana turtle farmers overcome salmonella, where human infections caused by pet turtles were a historical problem. He published dozens of peer-reviewed papers on enteric bacteria found in Louisiana estuaries, making contributions to public health at large.

 Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing  Salmonella typhimurium  (red) invading cultured human cells Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

Siebeling is best known for his research on producing a pathogen-free turtle. In the early 1970s, his research served as a basis for his relationship with the Louisiana Turtle Industry farmers. His work led to a method to produce Salmonella-free turtles. Over the last three decades, Siebeling's research on pathogenic mechanisms of enteric bacteria, molecular factors conveying antibiotic resistance and immune mechanisms in response to enteric infection produced dozens of peer reviewed papers and multiple chapters in textbooks on mechanisms of infection by enterics. His research attracted graduate students worldwide, all of whom departed LSU for successful careers in medicine, dentistry, agricultural research, oral pathogen research and virology. Among his successful mentees is College of Science alumnus and fellow Hall of Distinction honoree James Lange.

In the 1970s, Jim Lange was a graduate student in Ron Siebeling’s lab.

 Jim Lange talks about his LSU experience and his mentor Ron Siebeling.

Jim Lange talks about his LSU experience and his mentor Ron Siebeling.

LSU College of Science: How did you meet Dr. Ron Siebeling?

Jim: My first contact with Dr. Ron Siebeling was as an undergraduate student in his immunology course, which he taught in a large lecture room in Coates Hall. He insisted his class be held at 7:30 a.m. sharp. I was always a morning person, but most of my peers weren’t. Yet the subject matter was so fascinating, and his teaching style was so effective, that ever-growing numbers of students registered for that course and showed up to his lectures.

I connected with Ron over both immunology and sports. He was a big sports nut. He brought a car to Louisiana from his graduate program at University of Arizona with a huge Green Bay Packers sticker on the rear window, and he parked that car in front of Audubon Hall every day. You couldn’t miss it. As I was finishing up with his immunology class, I told him that I wanted to take his pathogenic microbiology course and continue on as a graduate student in his lab. I ended up on active duty in Vietnam shortly thereafter, for three years, but Ron gave me the opportunity to come back as a Master's student under his tutelage. When I graduated with my Master’s degree in 1974, I made sure to visit him at least once a year, and we’d always spend the entire day together.

College of Science: What made Dr. Siebeling a great mentor and a role model?

 Ronald Siebeling, 1999

Ronald Siebeling, 1999

Jim: Ron set a good example of work ethic. He always worked in his own lab six days per week, and any students who didn’t do the same, didn’t stay his students. He was extremely kind to his students in some ways, and harsh on them in other ways, but always open-minded. If you did things poorly, he wouldn’t hesitate to call you out. But if you did things well, he would praise you. I liked his direct approach.

College of Science: What set Dr. Siebeling apart from other educators?

Jim: Ron was great at maintaining currency in his lecture series. He always revised his lectures to present the most up-to-date information. He was a member of professional societies that kept him abreast of all the most recent discoveries in the field of immunology, specifically related to reticuloendothelial studies (related to a diverse system of fixed and circulating phagocytic cells, macrophages and monocytes, involved in the immune response), the heartbeat of the immune system.

Ron’s immunology course was fascinating. He made students want to understand what was going on with their own immune systems. People are always curious about the immune system, when and why it fails, and how we can bolster it for example with vaccines. Take the latest influenza outbreak for example, which was so severe that it killed many young children. Ron Siebeling’s research topic was the mechanism and pathogenesis of viruses like the influenza virus: how they spread, what damage they do, and what exactly causes the damage.

LSU College of Science: Do you have a favorite Ron Siebeling story?

Jim: One of Ron’s famous quirks was that he would provide microbiology students with free transportation to annual meetings of the American Society for Microbiology. He would rent a van and drive as many microbiology students as he had room for. And there was only one way to get to the meeting no matter where it was – straight drive through. We’d go from Baton Rouge to Miami, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. When we left LSU campus, we did nothing but stop to fill the tank, empty our bladders, and eat!

LSU College of Science: How does it feel to share the Hall of Distinction stage with one of your mentors?

Jim: It’s very humbling for me. We always called him Jefe, which is Spanish for “chief,” and he’ll always be Jefe to me. After I graduated, we shared books we were reading and other experiences we were having with one another, and our connection went well beyond what we experienced on the LSU campus as mentee and mentor. It’s an extremely humbling experience for me to even stand up on the same stage where he will be honored.


 Jim and his wife Neilanne at the LSU College of Science Dean's Circle Dinner

Jim and his wife Neilanne at the LSU College of Science Dean's Circle Dinner

Jim is a Louisiana native, born and raised. He attended St. Aloysius High School and matriculated stright to LSU. After earning his Master’s degree from LSU working with Ron Siebeling, Jim embarked on a 42-year prodigious research and federal career. He started at the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, working on hemorrhagic fever viruses. One of the highlights of his work at the CDC was highlighted by his contribution to the first description, published in The Lancet, of a new deadly virus – the Ebola virus.

Jim went on to complete a PhD in pathology at UNC-Chapel Hill and work with the National Institutes of Health in the Middle East. After a 14-year hiatus, he also rejoined the U.S. Army Reserve as a Medical Service Corps officer, retiring in 2009 after a tour in Iraq with Task Force 3 Medical Command. He returned to the CDC to support its new Emergency Operations Program. In 2014, he deployed to Liberia to assess monitoring programs for close contacts of Ebola virus cases, and in 2015 and 2016 he managed the Immunogenicity Sub-Study for the Ebola Vaccine Project in Sierra Leone. In late 2016, before retiring the following year, he deployed to Puerto Rico to support CDC’s emergency response to the Zika virus outbreak.

Jim credits LSU with giving him the tools for a successful and rewarding career. “I can never repay this institution for what it has given me,” he said. “Robert Borski first taught me the art of tissue culture in LSU’s Life Science Building.” He and his wife of 49 years, Neilanne Parker Lange, also an LSU grad, have been members of the College of Science Dean’s Circle and Dean’s Circle Executive Committee since 2009.

LSU College of Science: Have you always been interested in science?

Jim: Yes. When people asked me, when I was a child, what I wanted to be, I always said a scientist. I had all the science kits and watched all of the nerdy science programs that were on TV back in those days, but I always took an interest in science and still do across a broad spectrum of disciplines.

LSU College of Science: Why did you choose to begin your academic journey at LSU?

Jim: That began at a very early age for me. I grew up here in Baton Rouge. Everyone was an LSU fan. My coaches who taught me the fundamentals of sports in grade school were all LSU graduates. My family members were all LSU fans, even though none of them graduated from LSU. I sold soda pop in Tiger Stadium as a youngster and hung around the campus with peers of mine in both grade school and in high school.

LSU College of Science: What is your favorite LSU memory?

Jim: That’s a tough one; I have so many good memories with this institution. But the most memorable is meeting my wife of almost 49 years through our mutual affiliation with LSU and then dating and then getting engaged and married. And if we’re fortunate, we’ll celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary next year.

LSU College of Science: Why did you choose to focus on microbiology?

Jim: Coming in, I did not know what specific discipline of science I would try to pursue. After an introductory course in microbiology with Dr. C.S. McKlesky piqued my interest, I enrolled in Ron’s immunology course. That’s where I got hooked.

LSU College of Science: At the CDC, you and a team lead an effort to describe a virus that was responsible for several deaths in Zaire. What was it like to be part of such a historic finding and helping to create vaccines and protocols that continue to impact so many people today?

Jim: The third year of my career at the CDC in Atlanta, I was tasked with the job of working in a Biosafety Level 4 facility. It’s the highest level of containment and potential harm that exists in biological sciences research. Doing that work, we routinely received very interesting things to test, including hemorrhagic fever viruses.

In late 1976, we received a shipment of autopsy tissue samples from Northern Zaire from people who were killed by a very mysterious hemorrhagic fever virus that was unknown to science at the time. I grew the virus, and recognized something fish. It appeared to be a virus then known as Maburg virus, the first known virus of a family of viruses called Filoviridae. We thought we had found the diagnosis, based on an early investigation with electron microscopy.

 Colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles budding from a chronically infected VERO E6 cell (35,000x magnification). Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility in Ft. Detrick, Maryland. Credit: NIAID

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles budding from a chronically infected VERO E6 cell (35,000x magnification). Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility in Ft. Detrick, Maryland. Credit: NIAID

But when we looked closer with specific immunologic testing reagents I had produced, we realized that it was not Marburg Virus. We had something that looked like Marburg virus, grew like Marburg and killed like Marburg. But we knew we had a new virus.

We had to come up with a name. My boss at the time, Carl Johnson, laid a map out on a table and said that we should pick a new name for this virus that would not be associated geographically with the country or region where we found it. At the time, there was a fair amount of controversy about virus nomenclature and people naming viruses for specific geographic regions, upsetting the people who lived there. He picked out a very small tributary of the Congo river, called the Ebola River. That’s how it got its name.

LSU College of Science: The virus struck again in 2014 and caused thousands of deaths. What was different about the virus this time around?

Jim: The big shocker in 2014, when the alarm bells sounded at the World Health Organization, was the fact that this was the first Ebola outbreak in that part of the African continent. Ebola had never happened before in West Africa. Since the initial outbreak we identified in 1976, 24 separate outbreaks had been dealt with by international conglomerates. This particular one in 2014 occurred in three separate countries and spread like wildfire because people were not aware of the dangers of how this virus spreads. Support systems for the sick were inadequate, and the virus was transmitted from person to person to person.

 Jim Lange in front of Connaught Hospital in Sierra Leone.

Jim Lange in front of Connaught Hospital in Sierra Leone.

Once the world realized the magnitude of the problem, we sent our resources. I was part of that effort on behalf of the CDC and their Ebola response team. In Liberia we were still seeing pop-up cases, so we tried to identify those cases, get treatment for them, and then more importantly identify all of their close contacts for a certain period of time prior to and concomitant with their disease symptoms, so that we could place these contacts in isolation for observation for a 21-day period, the incubation period for the virus.

In 2015 and 2016, I was very fortunate to be asked to participate as a member of an Ebola vaccine trial team for CDC. I supervised an immunology lab in Sierra Leone on that effort until my retirement in 2017.

LSU College of Science: Do you have some words to live by that you can share?

Jim: If you are fortunate in life, you will find something that is very interesting to you that you can, if you’re extremely lucky, find employment in. If you can do that, you’ll never look at a clock or calendar on the job – nothing but enjoyment comes from that. I consider myself among that extremely lucky few.