Biochemistry faculty profile – Assistant Professor Robert Kirchdoerfer

Photo of Robert Kirchdoerfer
Assistant Professor Robert Kirchdoerfer.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Go to school?

I grew up in the small town of Oregon, WI where I graduated from high school. I then took the short trip up to Madison to attend the UW as an undergraduate. After I finished my bachelors degree I moved out to San Diego to attend graduate school at The Scripps Research Institute in Ian Wilson’s laboratory, using structural biology to study how influenza virus replicates its genome.

Where did you carry out your postdoctoral research?

I stayed at The Scripps Research Institute for postdoctoral research moving across the parking lot to join the lab of Erica Ollmann Saphire, where I worked on the assembly and function of Ebola virus nucleocapsids. To pursue an interest in coronaviruses I moved to Andrew Ward’s lab also at The Scripps Research Institute where I learned cryo-electron microscopy.

Why did you decide to study science?

I was attracted to the sciences because I not only wanted to know and discover new things, but I wanted to develop new ways of doing things. I see science as a way to improve the world and help people.

Why did you come to Madison? When?

I came back to Madison in 2019 to start as an assistant professor. I was excited to be a part of the outstanding virology community and take advantage of the cutting edge cryoEM resources being developed here.

What do you like most about being a professor?

My favorite part of being a professor is helping students design new experiments. I enjoy reading papers and trying to figure out innovative ways of doing things.

What is the focus of your research?

The Kirchdoerfer lab studies the molecular events of coronaviruses. We use single-particle cryo-electron microscopy to do high-resolution imaging and determine how coronaviruses enter cells and replicate their genomes. We combine structural biology, biochemistry and virology to try and figure out how to design new vaccines or develop new antiviral drugs.

What do you consider your major accomplishments?

I try to take projects one at a time and in the moment every project seems like the greatest accomplishment, so it’s hard to choose one in particular. My postdoctoral work on coronavirus spikes lead to the engineering of stabilizing mutations that have been included in a number of vaccines to prevent COVID-19. I certainly did not realize when we started that study what an incredibly far reach it would have.

What advice would you provide to a new assistant professor who is just starting his/her career?

I would tell a young assistant professor to focus on the science and try to have fun. It’s so easy to get bogged down trying to manage a lab that I sometimes lose track of why I love this job so much.

When you are not working, what do you like to do? What is your favorite place in Madison?

I love going to the Dane County Farmer’s Market on Capitol Square.

Favorite Quote

“If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.” – Eoin Coifer

Friends Describe Me

Dour and yet somehow quirky

Fantasy Dinner Guests

Fr. Tony Schumacher, Rich Froning Jr., Ellen Ripley, Jeff Simcox, Dave Nelson, Amanda Gorman

Best Advice I Ever Received

“Lift with your legs, not your back.”

My Undergrad Alma Mater


My Worst Subject In School

Recess. I have the eye-hand coordination of a block of cheese.

If I Weren’t A Professor, I Would

Still be pipetting clear colorless solutions between tubes

In College I Drove

My sneakers

Favorite Books

Ender’s Game (Orsen Scott Card), Good Omens (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet), The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas), Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling)

Favorite City

Excepting Madison of course, I would have to say my favorite city is Montreal. It has an amazing culture and a really friendly population.

Favorite Movies

Jurassic Park, Up, War Games

Favorite Coffee

A nice cup of herbal tea

Current Research

Examining how different coronaviruses replicate their genomes

My Latest Accomplishment

Only eating ice cream once a day

Nobody Knows I…

Have a tree stump in my foyer. I am perpetually “stumped.”