For a naturally curious person who enjoys finding answers with the scientific method, the University of Minnesota Medical School is the perfect place to work. Marc Jenkins, PhD, a Regents and Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Medical School’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, taps into his inquisitiveness to make discoveries about our immune system. 

Specifically, he has devoted his career to exploring CD4 lymphocytes, also called the helper T lymphocyte. Jenkins strives to understand how these cells respond to foreign substances like infections or tumors by producing an immune response to eliminate them from our bodies. That response should happen consistently and develop long-term immunity—the basis for vaccines. 

“A lot of my research relates to vaccines and why some work and some don’t,” says Jenkins, director of the Center for Immunology. “At a basic level, I’m trying to understand why this subset of lymphocyte evolved and how it becomes activated to recognize foreign entities.”

Jenkins’ work has real-world applications, such as the research on T cell co-stimulation and CD28 he did as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health and then at the University of Minnesota. Based on his findings, scientists developed CD28-targeted therapies for graft rejection and rheumatoid arthritis. 

“That discovery happened in the mid-1980s, and it took 20 years for the discovery to be applied to clinical medicine,” he says. “Eventually it was, and so I’m proud of that.”

Gaining Knowledge, Returning Home

A native of Minnesota, Jenkins earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota before leaving to pursue a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from Northwestern University. After his NIH fellowship in 1988, Jenkins was thrilled to return to the University as an assistant professor of microbiology. It was a nice homecoming for Jenkins that renewed his appreciation for the Minnesota approach to work.

“There are really talented investigators here, and they are ambitious and accomplish a lot,” he says. “But students here are not going to be assigned to the same project as someone else to fight it out, and they’re not going to be afraid to share their results with other people in the community. We’re trying to make it fun to work hard.” 

Honored for His Contributions

Jenkins has thrived at the University. In 2018, he received the Regents Professorship, one of the University’s highest honors that recognizes the national and international prominence of faculty and their exceptional contributions to teaching, research, scholarship, creative work and collaboration. He was also named a Distinguished McKnight professor earlier in his career. 

“They both mean a lot to me because they are recognition by my colleagues,” he adds. 

Jenkins also finds meaning in working with enthusiastic, smart students who keep him young. He calls his career too good to be true, thanks to his ability to seek answers to the many scientific questions that interest him. 

“I’m fortunate that I can follow my ideas as long as I can convince other people in the field that they are good ideas,” he says. “Then, I can chase my dreams.”