The research interests of faculty mentors in Immunology span the spectrum from contemporary fundamental mechanisms to life-saving patient-specific clinical Immunology. This offers students a diversity of opportunities based on their specific interests - but all within an integrated academic umbrella. The integration mechanisms include having all the faculty participating in common Immunology forums designed around students such as courses, weekly journal clubs, seminars and spontaneous discussion sessions. This cohesion critically allows students exposure to significant expertise in multiple aspects of Immunology even if their thesis is focused on a cutting-edge niche project. This breadth makes our students competitive for postdoctoral careers in diverse fields.
Several faculties study the molecular/cellular mechanisms of pathogen recognition by TLRs, effector responses by macrophages, cytokine biology, migration of lymphocytes from tissues to lymphoid organs, activation of T and B cells, signaling mechanisms downstream of antigen and cytokine receptors, biology of invariant Natural Killer T (NKT) cells, gamma-delta T cells and development of new lymphoid structures in inflammatory states. A rare expertise for which the department is internationally recognized is in comparative Immunology focused on the evolution of adaptive immunity, using amphibians and cartilaginous fish (led by the groups of Flajnik and Dooley). A large tumor immunology program associated with the UMGCCC includes multiple faculty studying the tumor microenvironment, myeloid-derived suppressor cells, NKT cell recognition of tumor lipids, tolerance and exhaustion processes in tumor-specific T cells and the role of regulatory T cells. In most cases, basic science faculty also have robust pre-clinical projects – ranging from the development of patented inhibitors of TLR (Eritoran by Dr. Vogel) to the generation of new Chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) for cellular therapy of glioblastoma (Dr. Luetkens). On the clinical side interests range from understanding clinical conditions (sepsis, fibrosis, etc.) to the treatment of tumors with adoptive cellular therapy followed by clinical monitoring of beneficial and adverse sequelae. Program faculty include transplantation surgeons (including Drs. Mohiuddin, Blomberg, Scalea) with several pioneering achievements including the nation’s first composite face transplant and the world’s first successful xenotransplantation. Most also have basic-research segments in their groups, allowing students to develop hypothesis-driven thesis questions that are also relevant to immediate clinical significance. For instance, the widely reported successful pig-to-human heart Xenotransplant involved significant contributions from a MMI graduate student (Dr. Corbin Goerlich) whose project also focuses on understanding the innate sensors in primates responding to xenogeneic stimuli.
Despite divergent interests, groups tend to collaborate heavily both towards supporting each other’s research as well as developing new projects and grant submissions. Faculty-initiated collaborations lead to joint mentoring of students and publications quite often (e.g. a recent graduate Dr. Susannah Shissler published in Nature Reports jointly with her mentor Dr. Webb and thesis-committee member Dr. Singh). More poignantly, the cohesive umbrella culture nurtured within the program often drives students to initiate cross-laboratory collaborations among themselves with little or no faculty involvement such as recent work from students Courtney Matson (Dr. Singh) and Brandi Hobbs (Dr. Barry). These collaborations in many other institutions can present unique challenges to the participating laboratories (e.g. how do PIs support unfunded collaborations, how to ensure that these are not distractions to the student’s thesis focus, how to mentor equitable credit and work distribution across different laboratory philosophies etc.). Our ability to productively nurture this reflect a genuine triumph of committed faculty time and motivated student participation.
In addition to sheltering/nurturing student independence, this umbrella approach also facilitates genuine discourse and critique of each other’s science. The Immunology Journal Club is one of the oldest running paper-discussion groups on campus with attendance of 25-60 faculty and students every week. The weekly departmental seminars invite luminaries in Immunology, many of whom meet separately with students for discussions. The Advanced Immunology course (AI) includes leading lecturers from nearby institutions (NIH, Hopkins etc.) to visit and teach students in the 2nd year followed by a social hour (pre-covid) to encourage discussions. Apart from exposure to ideas, these events have also had lasting career impacts on the students. Dr. Susannah Shissler (a recent graduate from MMI) for example first met her future mentor (Dr. Avinash Bhandoola, NCI, NIH) at a social session in the AI class – where they connected during discussions on lymphocyte development. After a seminar speaker (Dr. Adrian Hayday – a leader in GammaDelta T cells) had discussions with Liron Marnin (at the time a 3rd year MMI Student in the Pedra Lab), he emailed us to enquire if Ms. Marnin would be “eventually” interested in a postdoc with him in London, UK. In addition, with the heavy density of academic-industrial joint ventures in the I270 corridor (centered around NIH in Bethesda spanning Washington DC, Frederick MD and Baltimore) several faculties are connected with industrial partners as well as Federal agencies. This offers students networking options for career placements in industry, FDA, extramural research etc.
The Immunology component of MMI is also renowned internationally for its academic strength. The “bible” of Immunology textbooks titled Fundamental Immunology is considered a definitive treatise on the subject and edited for 25 years by the Late Dr. William E. Paul (NIH) who recruited the current leaders of immunology to contribute ~50 chapters to each edition, for 7 editions. After Dr. Paul’s passing in 2015, MMI faculty Dr. Flajnik was selected as the next editor for the book who, together with Drs. Singh (MMI) and Holland (NIH), will release the new version in 2022. The MMI program runs two comprehensive Immunology courses for students. In the basic Immunology course, some segments are opened up to interested senior students to develop innovative teaching strategies that they can try out on the incoming class (with mentoring) and then tweak based on feedback. These opportunities allow students to not only hone their Immunology knowhow but also refine their approach to teaching if they should choose such career tracks in future. Evidence for the success of these efforts was in 2020, where with the unexpected shutdown of campus academics in the Spring which led to cancellation of all summer internship programs despite offers having been sent to students. In response, 12 MMI graduate students got together and organized a structured introductory immunology course for ~120 undergraduates, without faculty involvement in teaching, that was delivered via zoom (see http://blog.nevillab.org/?p=1133) to very positive feedback. This was the first such course in the nation under the circumstances, and perhaps still the only one completely and spontaneously developed by graduate students.