Principle Investigator

Sheng Yang He, Ph.D.

Sheng Yang He
Professor, HHMI/GBMF Investigator

I am broadly interested in biological processes that mediate the molecular interplay between plants and microbes. In the past two decades, I led an interactive group of postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in exploring novel phenomena in bacterial pathogenesis and disease susceptibility in plants. In addition, I teach graduate classes on plant and microbial biology and contribute to the large scientific community through serving on a variety of committees.

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Lab Manager 

Saunia Withers

Lab Manager

I joined the He lab during the move to Duke to help coordinate the transition from Michigan State University. My prior lab management experience allows me to keep the lab running efficiently. I also have expertise in protein biochemistry, which I will be using to support the various projects in the lab.


Caitlin Thireault, M.S.

Caitlin Thireault
Innate immune responses offer protection against a broad-range of microorganisms and potential pathogens. I am interested in dissecting plant innate immunity to identify novel contributing factors in host susceptibility to refine our current understanding of plant-microbe interactions.

Postdoctoral Researchers

Alex Brutus, Ph.D.
Alex Brutus
Postdoctoral Researcher

With great sadness we say good bye to our friend and colleague, Dr. Alex Brutus, who passed away December 31, 2017 after a long and courageous battle with the incurable disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Alex was an inspiring scientist, a genuine friend, and a caring husband and father. Alex’s boundless passion for science and creativity will always be a part of the He lab.  Although Alex’s illness hampered completion of his postdoctoral research, he was an important contributor to several projects, including the following published works:

Broad-spectrum defense against plant pathogens. Brutus A, and He SY. Nat Biotechnol. 2010

A genetic screen reveals Arabidopsis stomatal and/or apoplastic defenses against Pseudomonas syringae pv. tomato DC3000. Zeng W, Brutus A, Kremer JM, Withers JC, Gao X, Jones AD, He SY. PLoS Pathog. 2011

A bacterial tyrosine phosphatase inhibits plant pattern recognition receptor activation. Macho AP, Schwessinger B, Ntoukakis V, Brutus A, Segonzac C, Roy S, Kadota Y, Oh MH, Sklenar J, Derbyshire P, Lozano-Durán R, Malinovsky FG, Monaghan J, Menke FL, Huber SC, He SY, Zipfel C. Science. 2014

An EFR-Cf-9 chimera confers enhanced resistance to bacterial pathogens by SOBIR1- and BAK1-dependent recognition of elf18. Wu J, Reca IB, Spinelli F, Lironi D, De Lorenzo G, Poltronieri P, Cervone F, Joosten MHAJ, Ferrari S, Brutus A. Molecular Plant Pathology. 2019 

Tim Arapov, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Researcher
Originally from Russia, I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. In my free time, I enjoy traveling, winter sports and scuba diving. I recieved my doctorate from Virginia Tech in 2020, and focused on Sinorhizobium meliloti, an important plant symbiont. I began working in the He lab in October of 2020 where I am focusing on how microbial communities shape the epigenetic landscape of plants.
YuTi Cheng, Ph.D.

YuTi Cheng
Postdoctoral Researcher

curriculum vitae
Using a reverse genetics approach, I study the function of Arabidopsis genes whose expression are affected by the bacterial elicitor flg22, the bacterial toxin coronatine, and/or the salicylic acid analog BTH.

Richard Hilleary, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Researcher
I am generally interested in signal transduction processes that allow plants and other organisms to perceive changes in their environment. My research focuses on elucidating the molecular species regulating the generation and maintenance of calcium signals during plant-pathogen interactions and how abiotic factors can influence this process on the cellular and molecular level.

Jonghum Kim, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Researcher
Previous studies in our lab indicate that plant-microbe interactions are influence by a number of environmental conditions, including temperature and humidity. As average global temperatures increase, our understanding of the connections between elevated temperature and pathogenesis is increasingly important for effective crop management. Within this context, I'm interested in the molecular and cellular "crosstalk" that occurs when plants are simultaneously challenged by pathogen infection and elevated environmental temperature.

Kinya Nomura, Ph.D.

Kinya Nomura Postdoctoral Researcher

curriculum vitae
I work with Pseudomonas syringae Type-III effectors, which suppress plant immunity during infection.

Reza Sohrabi, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Researcher

My research focuses on studying plant-microbiota-environment interactions under biotic and abiotic stresses. Using a gnotobiotic plant growth setup, I am studying mechanisms of microbiota functions in enhancing plant health and growth and evaluating the roles of small molecules from defined microbial communities in mediating host processes.

André Velásquez, Ph.D.


curriculum vitae
My research is currently focused on understanding the mechanisms by which PAMP-triggered immunity is able to prevent pathogen establishment and growth. I am also investigating the variability of resistance to Pseudomonas syringae encountered in different natural accessions of Arabidopsis. Finally, a third project in which I am involved focuses into engineering new resistance pathways in plants.

Li Zhang, M.S., Ph.D.

Li Zhang
Postdoctoral Researcher

curriculum vitae
The overall goal of my research is to understand how the bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas syringae infects plants. My first project is aimed at engineering jasmonate receptor mutants that have reduced sensitivity to coronatine, but preserve responsiveness to endogenous jasmonate. My second project is to clone Arabidopsis genes that, when mutated, restore the virulence of coronatine-deficient mutants of P. syringae bacteria.

Graduate Students

Rose Kithan

Ph.D. Student
Microbial colonization can offer significant benefits to the overall health of a host plant. However, our fundamental understanding of the mechanisms underlying microbial assembly, activity, and recruitment is limited. To harness the power of colonization by beneficial microbial communities in agriculture, we must obtain a holistic understanding of the interactions that occur between the host plant and colonizing microbes. To that end, I’m interested in studying the mechanisms by which plants control the quantity and content of the leaf microbiota, as well as how microbe-microbe interactions further influence community assembly.

Brad Paasch

Brad Paasch
Ph.D. Candidate

curriculum vitae

My research focuses on unraveling the molecular mechanisms in which a plant microbiome influences host processes. The role of a microbiome on plant development and innate immunity are of particular interest to my research.

Adam Seroka

Ph.D. Candidate

My research focuses on the interaction between Pseudomonas syringae  pv. DC3000 and Arabidopsis thaliana and how local infection and  activation of defense systemically disrupts plant growth and movements. By studying the interconnected nature between plant  pathogens, defense, and development, we can gain a broader insight  into the molecular mechanisms that regulate plant behavior.


Gaby Cavataio -


Matt Jozefaciuk -

Jennifer Lee -


Jessica Wood -

Visiting Scholars

  Dr. Tao Chen

Social Events

Halloween festivities on the 4th floor (2019)

Group picture after ziplining - 2019 He Lab Retreat

MPS 4200 bids a fond farewell to He Lab member Danve Castroverde (2019)

Happy Halloween from the He Lab! (2018)

Enjoying the fall colors in Baker Woodlot at MSU (October 2018)

First and Second place winners of the first annual He Lab Games at the 2018 He Lab Retreat

Lab Lunch during ICAR in St. Louis (2017)

Spartans Will pose (2017)

The He Lab annual retreat up north to the beautiful Au Sable River for boating, games, fishing, relaxation, and of course, riveting scientific discussions (2014)

Playing some music at Sheng Yang's house (2012)

Lab ski trip to Crystal Mountain (2013)

Another photo from the annual lab retreat (2014)