Spotlight: Alumnus John Cambier, PhD

Date: Wednesday, July 27, 2022
Dr. John Cambier

Distinguished Alumnus John Cambier received his PhD from the University of Iowa Department of Microbiology in 1975, working in the lab of John Butler, PhD. He went on to have a distinguished career in research, service, teaching, and leadership. Cambier credits Butler for the critical role that he played in his scientific development and success.

Cambier grew up in the neighboring state of Illinois, where he enjoyed hunting, fishing, and playing sports, particularly football. Indeed, his early years in college at Missouri State University were mainly spent playing sports on a scholarship, and he acknowledges very strong mentorship from Roar Irgens, PhD, at MSU, who nurtured his interest in microbiology. Irgens convinced him to go to graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1970.

At Iowa, John first earned a Master’s degree in virology working in the laboratory of Edward Meek, PhD. During his first year he became fascinated by immunology, and, as a consequence, moved to Butler’s lab to work towards a PhD on a project which involved defining the mucosal immune system of rodents. Butler’s enthusiasm for immunology was inspirational, and for Cambier, there was no turning back. He was going to devote his life to immunology.

Motivated by an interest in how immune system cells were instructed by their environment, e.g., antigen and cytokines, he sought a postdoc in the then-new field of transmembrane signal transduction. This took him to the laboratories of Jon Uhr, PhD and Ellen Vitetta, PhD at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, who were experts in studying lymphocyte receptors. Cambier’s first faculty position was at Duke, where he started his independent research program continuing productive studies of B cell receptor structure and signaling in response to antigen.

After much success at Duke, Cambier was recruited to the University of Colorado School of Medicine and National Jewish in 1983, where, in 1987, he became the founding Chief of the Division of Basic Sciences in the National Jewish Department of Pediatrics. Later, in 1999, he became the founding Chair of the Integrated Department of Immunology, a joint effort of National Jewish and the University of Colorado. In 2014, this department moved physically to a new medical school campus and merged with the Microbiology Department, becoming the Department of Immunology and Microbiology, with John remaining its chair.

In 2016, Cambier was instrumental in starting and directing the University of Colorado Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative. Throughout his leadership, Cambier recruited 39 new faculty, propelling immunology at the University of Colorado to national prominence. His career-long research focus has been on understanding the structure and transmembrane signal transduction by the B lymphocyte antigen receptor and checkpoint receptors. His studies have contributed significantly to understanding receptor signaling and autoimmunity, and several of his research findings are being utilized in the development of therapies for autoimmunity.

Cambier has authored over 230 peer-reviewed publications and over 100 reviews. He has served on NIH study sections and editorial boards continuously through his long career and has received numerous honors and awards, including the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Award and Distinguished Fellow of the American Association of Immunologists. He has cofounded three companies and is Editor-in-Chief of Immunological Reviews. Cambier, now Distinguished Professor Emeritus, lives with his wife, Sara, in Denver.