When Madeleine Cunningham was a child growing up in Mississippi, her father drove her through the Southern forests and explained his work as a botanist and forestry expert.
“He used to show me all of his experiments with trees,” Cunningham said. “He would talk about their genetics. He just had a great interest in science.”
That love of science was transferred from father to daughter.
Cunningham earned an undergraduate degree at Mississippi State College for Women and a Ph.D. in both microbiology and immunology from the University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences.
Today, she is a George Lynn Cross Research Professor and Presbyterian Health Foundation Presidential Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, where she has taught and conducted research into infection and autoimmune diseases for 33 years.
“My training was in Group A streptococcal disease, but I also love immunology, which is our body’s response to infections,” she said.
After researching rheumatic fever, myocarditis and other heart-related diseases for 15 years, Cunningham received a call from the National Institutes of Mental Health. They wanted her to investigate a puzzling condition affecting children known as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with strep, commonly known as PANDAS.
Cunningham became a collaborator of Dr. Susan Swedo, Chief of the Pediatrics and Developmental Neuroscience Branch at the National Institutes of Mental Health. They made some important discoveries that explained perplexing conditions among children who displayed obsessive compulsive symptoms, tics and behaviors that were out of control for no apparent reason.
Turns out, many young people are susceptible to infections that cause changes in their brains and alter their behaviors. Some children who are originally diagnosed with autism may actually have PANDAS and may be cured.
I had this fantastic bug collection, and of course got an A-plus on it. My father loved it, because science was a big part of his life.”