Marsha Wills-Karp is the chair of the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Anna M. Baetjer Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, and a Bloomberg Centennial Professor. A leading immunologist, her research into the role of the cytokine, interleukin-13, opened a new paradigm in asthma studies that has become one of the central tenets of asthma research.
Wills-Karp’s research focuses on the environmental and genetic determinants of allergic airway diseases and the immune mechanisms involved in asthma. Her work on how allergens and airborne pollutants activate immune pathways has made significant contributions to the understanding of how altered immune recognition of environmental factors can lead to the development of allergic disease. She has identified several genetic patterns that may increase susceptibility to asthma. Her expertise in the field of asthma has led her to advise pharmaceutical companies in their efforts to create drugs that block interleukin-13 and other asthma-related proteins.
Her current research projects include the prevention and treatment of food allergies, and how environmental exposures of pregnant women affect the health of their offspring. More specifically, she studies how pregnant mothers’ exposure to ambient air pollution induces intrauterine inflammation and links to childhood obesity. In 2018, she discovered that a receptor, dectin-1 – which appears on epithelial cells lining the lungs and gut – protects against allergic reactions instead of causing them, as was previously believed. This insight has opened up new opportunities for potential treatment.
Wills-Karp has published more than 160 articles in peer-reviewed journals. She is currently an associate editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation and previously served as Deputy Editor of Mucosal Immunology. She has also served as a reviewer for many journals including Science and Nature.
As chair of the Department of Health and Environmental Engineering and the former chair of Environmental Health Sciences at Bloomberg School of Public Health (2012-2016), she encourages cross-divisional and cross-disciplinary inquiry, bringing together financial and intellectual resources to support collaborative research between the engineering and public health sectors. She served as associate dean for research at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine. She was also a tenured professor of pediatrics and director of the Division of Immunobiology there from 2000 to 2012.
Wills-Karp received her BS and MS degrees from Southwest Texas State University in 1980 and 1982, respectively. She earned her Ph.D. from the Environmental Stress Institute at University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1986. From 1986-1987, she was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, followed by two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University.