Meet the Whelan Lab

Sean P. J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the Head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and the Marvin A. Brennecke Distinguished Professor, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.  Dr. Whelan received his B.Sc. degree in Microbiology and Biochemistry, from the University of Birmingham, and a Ph.D. in Molecular Virology from the University of Reading. Following post-doctoral training at the University of Alabama at Birmingham he started his own laboratory at Harvard Medical School and in 2011 was promoted to the rank of Professor. Whelan is an internationally renowned expert on non-segmented negative-sense RNA viruses. He joined Washington University in Saint Louis in 2020 in his current role as Chair. He is a member of the American Academy of Microbiology, an Editor of Fields Virology, Virology, PLoS Pathogens and serves on the editorial board of Journal of Virology. He pioneered reverse genetic approaches to manipulate the genome of vesicular stomatitis virus - this work led to the field domesticating the virus as a vaccine vector and oncolytic agent and one licensed human vaccine against Ebola has been developed using this technology. Whelan’s group used this genetic system to develop biosafety level 2 reporter viruses against 80 viral pathogens including several biosafety level 3 and 4 emerging viruses.  Using those viruses, his laboratory identified the cellular receptors for Ebola, Lassa, and Lujo viruses and for the endogenous human retrovirus, HERV-K.  Whelan’s group also pioneered structural studies of the replication machinery of non-segmented negative-strand RNA viruses using negative-stain electron microscopy and electron cyro microsopy – where he solved the atomic structures of vesicular stomatitis virus and rabies virus polymerases. Most recently Whelan’s group has built upon the VSV platform approach developing a BSL2 reporter of SARS-CoV-2 entry and neutralization by antibodies and receptors. Whelan’s group has advanced this VSV-SARS-CoV-2 vector as a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 demonstrating efficacy in animal models of disease. 

Sean Whelan, PhD

Marvin A. Brennecke Distinguished Professor and

Head of Molecular Microbiology 

Marjorie Cornejo Pontelli

Postdoc Research Associate 

Originally from Brazil, Marjorie is a Biologist with a master’s in Biochemistry and Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from University of São Paulo. During her Ph.D., Marjorie studied how the accessory proteins of bunyaviruses are associated with viral replication and pathogenesis. Since joining the Whelan lab in 2020, she is working on localizing specific brain regions responsible for promoting viral immunity and viral infection-induced re-programing of neuronal circuits. Also, she’s been working to identify novel SARS-CoV-2 host-entry factors. Marjorie is a sports enthusiast outside the lab, enjoys playing soccer, biking and Crossfit. During the warmer weather, you can easily find her exploring outdoors with her dog. 

Yuhao Li

Senior Scientist

Yuhao is originally from China where he did his Ph.D. at the South China Agriculture University in Guangzhou, under the supervision of Dr. Ming Liao. Previously, Yuhao worked as a staff scientist for Dr. Megan Tierney Baldridge and Dr. Scott Handley at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Yuhao studied the intestinal microbiome and immune responsiveness to viral infections or vaccination. Yuhao joined Dr. Sean Whelan's lab in July 2022, where he uses vesicular-stomatitis virus (VSV) to create vaccine platforms encoding spike or receptor-binding domain (RBD) antigens and dominant conserved T cell epitopes to generate cross-reactive responses against Sarbecoviruses (SRBV) and Merbecoviruses (MRBV) with pandemic potential. Outside the lab, Yuhao enjoys hiking, camping, and cooking. 

Jana Liese

Graduate Student 

Jana Liese is a MD/PhD student in Molecular Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis. She graduated in 2020 with a B.Sc. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of South Carolina and then completed a post-baccalaureate fellowship at the National Institutes of Health where her work focused on developing vaccines for pandemic influenza viruses. In the Whelan lab, she studies the attachment and entry mechanisms of emerging Bunyaviruses and is interested in pathology as a clinical specialty. Outside of the lab she enjoys theater, dance, and spoiling her two guinea pigs. 

Zhuoming Liu

Research Instructor

Originally from China, Zhuoming earned his Ph.D in March 2015 under the mentorship of Dr. Yasushi Kawaguchi at The University of Tokyo, where he studied molecular mechanisms of replication of Herpes Simplex Virus 1. After completing his Ph.D, Zhuoming stayed on at the same lab as a postdoc to complete his research on herpes. In September 2015, Zhuoming joined Dr. Sean Whelan's lab to study host factors required for alphavirus viral entry as well as SARS-CoV-2 S mutational antigenic profiling and evolution to monoclonal and polyclonal antibody by using VSV-Chimera virus. Outside lab, Zhuoming likes reading and travelling, as well as sports.

Lan Lu

Research Specialist / Lab Manager 

Lan received her B.S. and M.S. in Biology from Hunan Normal University in China. She works at Washington University School of Medicine over 20 years. Lan joined Dr. Sean Whelan’s lab in November 2022. Outside the lab, Lan enjoys cooking, reading and playing with her cats. 

Rita Meganck

Postdoctoral Research Associate 

Dr. Rita Meganck is an RNA biologist and virologist. She received her PhD in 2020 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she developed systems for efficient expression of engineered, translatable circRNAs. She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Ralph Baric’s laboratory studying the fitness of SARS-CoV-2 variants and determining host factors for potentially zoonotic coronaviruses using CRISPR screening. Rita joined the Whelan lab in 2023 to study mechanisms of RNA regulation in viral infection.  

Amith Punyala

Graduate Student 

Amith is a MD/PhD student in the Molecular Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis program. He graduated in 2019 from Cornell University and came to WashU in 2021 after completing a post-baccalaureate fellowship at Emory University. In the Whelan Lab, he is interested in studying host factors for Orthopneumovirus, Metapneumovirus, and Orthonairovirus entry and attachment. Outside of lab, he enjoys cooking, baking, and spending time with his cat. 

Mason Roth

Undergraduate Researcher 

Mason is an undergraduate researcher originally from Cockeysville, Maryland. Prior to joining the lab, he previously led the isolation and characterization of the novel bacteriophage “Success” in the context of the WashU Phage Hunters program. Having started in the Whelan Lab at the beginning of 2023, Mason is currently studying the host entry mechanisms of both New and Old World Arenaviruses, specifically looking at key residues within the viral glycoprotein that are involved in CD164-mediated entry and infection. Outside of the lab, Mason is an avid skier, swimmer, water polo player, and a fan of good food. 

Paul Rothlauf

Visiting Researcher 

Paul grew up in Ringwood, NJ and graduated from Rowan University in 2017 with BS degrees in Biological Science and Biochemistry. During his undergraduate studies, Paul developed an interest in host-pathogen interactions. To explore his interests, he joined the lab of Dr. Claude Krummenacher as a research assistant, where he studied host and viral proteins involved in herpes simplex virus type 1 entry. Paul worked in Dr. Don Coen's lab as a Harvard Amgen Scholar during the summer of 2016, where he helped develop a high-throughput screening assay to identify small molecule inhibitors of human cytomegalovirus nuclear egress. Paul enrolled in the PhD Program in Virology at Harvard University in 2017 and joined Dr. Sean Whelan's lab shortly after; the lab has since relocated to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where Paul is a Visiting Researcher. In 2021, Paul was awarded an NIH F31 predoctoral research fellowship. Paul's research is centered around the development of novel replication-competent vesicular stomatitis viruses, and he has utilized these tools to study viral entry mechanisms, to assess neutralization by antibodies and soluble receptors, to measure inhibition by chemical compounds, and to serve as vaccine candidates. Paul is interested in viral entry mechanisms, vaccine development, and structural biology. In his spare time, Paul enjoys hiking, fishing, playing basketball, and wrestling with his black lab puppy. 

Casey Thompson

Graduate Student

Cassandra Thompson is a WashU PhD candidate in Molecular Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis, who is originally from Northern California. Cassandra got her B.Sc. in Biomedical Sciences and Microbiology from Colorado State University in 2016 and then worked as a Research Associate at the Gladstone Center for Cell Circuitry, where she studied and developed transmissible therapeutics for HIV. Cassandra joined the Whelan Lab in the summer of 2020 and studies the mechanisms of pathogenic and nonpathogenic New World Arenavirus entry, focusing on the mechanisms of viral zoonosis. Outside of the lab she is an avid home brewer, baker, and horse, dog, and carnivorous-plant mom. 

Darya Urusova

Senior Scientist

Dr. Darya Urusova received her Ph.D. from Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography, Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, studying the crystal structure and catalytic mechanism of SAICAR Synthase, the enzyme involved in Purine and Pyrimidine Metabolism. Her research interests involve structural, molecular and cell biology and host-pathogen interaction. Darya has been with the Department of Molecular Microbiology at WUSTL since 2015 and joined Dr. Whelan's lab in 2023. She is currently studying the VLV L-protein/RNA complex. She enjoys reading, writing and music. Zumba, biking and hiking quench her passion for exercises and outdoor activity.