Career Pathways—Explore the Possibilities, Academic Research Scientist

Interview with Dr. Oliver J. Harrison, Assistant Member at the Benaroya Research Institute

Dr. Ollie Harrison poses for a photo

Dr. Oliver J. Harrison, Assistant Member, Benaroya Research Institute

Oliver Harrison

Dr. Oliver J. Harrison, Assistant Member, Benaroya Research Institute

Credit: Oliver Harrison

What are you going to do after your postdoc or Ph.D. research at NIH?

The “Career Pathways – Explore the Possibilities” series highlights different professions pursued by scientists like you. This interview focuses on an academic research scientist, someone who runs their own research laboratory. Dr. Harrison is an assistant member in the Center for Fundamental Immunology at Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle, WA.

Dr. Harrison was a postdoc in the Metaorganism Immunity Section of the Laboratory of Immune System Biology under the supervision of Yasmine Belkaid, Ph.D. He transitioned to his current independent research position in early 2020. Read this interview with Dr. Harrison to learn more about his journey to academia.

Introduce your position, specific research interests, and the mission of the Harrison lab.

The research in my laboratory is focused on understanding the mechanisms controlling host-microbe interactions at barrier sites, such as the skin and the gastrointestinal tract. We study how our resident, or “commensal,” microbes influence the development, education, and function of our immune system. The lab investigates the molecular mechanisms of how T- and B-cell responses to these commensal microbes are mounted and function. The goal is to understand how these immune cells promote barrier tissue integrity and repair, and to understand how this goes awry during disease.

Introduce your postdoctoral research at NIAID.

Whilst at NIAID, I performed my research in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases and later the Laboratory of Immune System Biology, under the mentorship of Yasmine Belkaid, Ph.D. My research in Yasmine’s lab focused on trying to understand how immune responses to the commensal microbes resident on our skin surface are mounted and regulated and contribute to tissue repair. Specifically, we focused on the mechanisms underlying how T-cell responses are mounted to the common human skin commensal, Staphylococcus epidermidis, and identified that in mice, these responses are mounted in a manner highly distinct from immunity to pathogenic microbes. We highlighted that S. epidermidis-specific CD8+ T cells recognized an unusual set of antigens derived from the microbe, namely N-formyl methionine containing peptides, and this was mediated by a non-classical major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule, H2-M3. With this information, we were able to generate new reagents to track, isolate, and profile these CD8+ T cells and were able to show that, as well as demonstrating an unusual MHC restriction, these cells were also highly distinct from pathogen-specific T cells at a transcriptional level. These commensal-specific CD8+ T cells adopted a hybrid state, able to protect against pathogenic microbes, in this case, Candida albicans, but also switched their phenotype to promote tissue repair after skin injury. Together, our findings demonstrated that commensal-specific T cells are highly distinct from those T cells responding to pathogens under inflammatory conditions and that these sentinel cells of barrier tissues act to rapidly promote tissue adaptation to injury. Our findings were published in two recent papers, “Non-classical Immunity Controls Microbiota Impact on Skin Immunity and Tissue Repair” in Cell, January 18, 2018 (Linehan et al. Cell, 2018) and "Commensal-specific T cell plasticity promotes rapid tissue adaptation to injury" published in Science on January 4, 2019 (Harrison et al. Science, 2019).

Describe your experience as a postdoc in NIAID. What was the most enjoyable part of doing a postdoc at NIAID? 

My experience as an NIAID postdoc was hugely rewarding and really allowed me to blossom as a scientist. I had long admired the work of a number of NIH investigators and hoped that by getting my postdoctoral training here, I would be able to train amongst some of the leaders in the field of immunology. The most enjoyable part of doing a postdoc at NIAID was surely the people. I was fortunate enough to work with a number of extremely talented students, postdocs, staff scientists and principal investigators (PIs), many of whom had traveled great distances and crossed cultural divides to work at the NIH. The driving force of NIH science is the postdoc community, and with these researchers committed enough to uproot their lives to pursue their scientific endeavors, the pace of work was always high and, with it, productive. I learned a lot about my capacity to think and experiment at NIH and will forever be thankful that I could train in an environment where we could pursue science with the security of funding, unique resources, and fantastic collaborators and colleagues.

Was there anything surprising, unique, interesting, or inspiring about working at NIAID?

One unique aspect of working at NIAID is the huge breadth of research just within the intramural program. During our studies, we would start to investigate new avenues of research, and there was invariably an expert on campus to whom we could turn.

How did this experience prepare you for your current role in academia? 

My training at NIAID has prepared me for a lot of, but by no means all(!), aspects of leading an independent laboratory. I developed the ability to develop scientific questions, build hypotheses to test them, and then apply technical skills to perform the experiments, but that is only a small part of running a new lab! There are many, many aspects that you can only learn by doing, but these are incredibly rewarding as you learn the hard way. Recruiting and mentoring a team of researchers; equipping, organizing, and funding a lab; and balancing big-picture thinking with the day-to-day and sweating details; the demands on a PI are something I didn’t fully comprehend until recently, but training at NIAID certainly helped prepare me for a lot of the aspects of my new role.

Discuss the transition from your postdoc to setting up a new lab; what's exciting or challenging about this? 

My experience of transition from postdoc to setting up a new lab was exactly that, equal degrees of excitement and challenge. You have been in a position where you’ve been very efficient at doing experiments, and perhaps manuscript writing, for a while, and watching that productivity fall off (temporarily!) as you build from the ground up is hard. That said, you’re now in a position to direct your research, and it can’t be understated how exciting that can be! The results of the first experiments in your lab having sourced everything, written the lab/safety/animal protocols, planned, and executed--it’s a pretty good feeling to see that data in black and white!

Why did you decide to pursue this path? 

Establishing my own laboratory was not something I have always dreamt of, but I am very glad that I have. Indeed, I pursued my postdoctoral training purely through a desire to study more fascinating immunology, and as I progressed through my postdoc training, I began to see running a laboratory as a means to keep doing that in the future. I certainly looked at options for setting up my lab in biotech and big pharma/industry but also wanted to be involved in training and mentoring young scientists as I had been during my graduate studies. Academia seemed (and seems!) like the right combination of these options for me.

Is there anything that you wish you knew, or any advice for current NIAID postdocs looking to pursue the same path? 

Yes. The academic job search is tough, and stressful, but also a great time to get feedback and have your hard work recognized around the country and world. During these interviews and visits, you will meet people that will likely become future collaborators. I am enjoying developing these interactions and bringing new techniques and insight to how we do our work.

Is it okay if current NIAID fellows contact you with questions?

Absolutely –

Content last reviewed on