Heather Deter named a 2021 Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellow

7/19/2021 Huan Song

Heather Deter will be working to address counterterrorism and surveillance concerns over harmful synthetic organisms.

Written by Huan Song

Bioengineering postdoctoral researcher Heather Deter. 
Bioengineering postdoctoral researcher Heather Deter. 

Heather Deter, a bioengineering postdoctoral researcher working in professor Ting Lu's lab, has been selected as a 2021 Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellow for her project Forensic Identification and Eradication of Synthetic Microbial Species, commencing on October 1, 2021. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will be the host institution over the course of this two-year program. 

The Intelligence Community (IC) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program (IC Postdoc Program) was established in 2000 to support unclassified basic research in areas of interest to the IC. This program is funded primarily by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which serves as the principal adviser to the United States President on intelligence issues. The fellowship program is managed through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). 

In collaboration with Research Advisors, postdoctoral research fellows develop and submit technical research proposals that align with research opportunities proposed by the IC community. The research is conducted while working in partnership with the Research Advisor, and collaborating with an advisor from the Intelligence Community. 

The research focus of Lu’s lab is around the analysis, modeling and construction of microbial gene circuits for uncovering biological design principles and advancing biotechnological applications. Deter’s research specifically addresses concerns over using harmful synthetic organisms, which has applications in both counterterrorism and surveillance efforts.
“My work is focused on understanding how altering the genetic system affects the host system and potentially how we can predict change so we can see when a system has been added based on the finished product,” said Deter. 

When a new system is introduced to a cell using synthetic biology techniques, the cell may exhibit a measurable stress response. In her previous research, Deter found antibiotic effectiveness changes when synthetic systems are within living hosts. “I’m looking forward to this project since it’s a continuation of my Ph.D. work”, she said. 

This fellowship seeks to differentiate between natural and synthetic gene circuits by quantifying the relationship between synthetic circuits and host physiology through antibiotic susceptibility. Data from this research will support in predicting the most effective antibiotic treatment options to eradicate hosts containing synthetic gene circuits.


The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education is a U.S. Department of Energy asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world-class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

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This story was published July 19, 2021.