Graduate Student Spotlight—Immunology, Innovation, and Involvement

Albert Sek

Albert Sek, doctoral candidate (right) with his doctoral research adviser, Dr. Helene Rosenberg (left)


Albert Sek, doctoral candidate (right) with his doctoral research adviser, Dr. Helene Rosenberg (left)

Credit: NIAID

In this interview, Albert Sek, Doctoral Candidate in the Inflammation Immunobiology Section, Laboratory of Allergic Diseases speaks about his experience as a graduate student at NIH as part of the Graduate Partnerships Program (GPP) Individual Partnership Program. He outlines his research focus, his mentorship experience under the supervision of Helene F. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., Chief, Inflammation Immunobiology Section, Laboratory of Allergic Diseases, and his future plans!

Tell me about your research and how it contributes to the mission of NIAID, the Laboratory of Allergic Diseases, and the Inflammation Immunobiology Section?

Our laboratory, the Inflammation Immunobiology Section, is broadly interested in eosinophilic inflammation, which is a key component of the innate immune response to tissue damage. We have always been interested in eosinophils and their contribution to disease pathophysiology; we have studied this extensively in the context of airway inflammation and asthma. When I started my doctoral research project at NIAID, I initiated a study to examine eosinophilic inflammation in a unique setting, specifically, the skeletal muscle tissue in Duchenne muscular dystrophy, or DMD.

DMD is a debilitating genetic disorder that affects 1 in 3,000 live male births. Due to mutations in a gene encoding the structural protein dystrophin, DMD patients exhibit severe muscle degeneration that results in loss of mobility and premature death. There has been significant interest in understanding how inflammation contributes to disease progression, and how modifying the inflammatory processes may affect the disease course. Eosinophils are prominent features in inflammation associated with muscular dystrophy, although their role in disease was not well understood. Traditionally, eosinophils were perceived to mediate tissue destruction, and that their accumulation served only to worsen disease pathology. However, using the mouse model of muscular dystrophy, we found that the eosinophils recruited to the skeletal muscle do not drive tissue damage.

Read more about this in Eosinophils Do Not Drive Acute Muscle Pathology in the mdx Mouse Model of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

This raises the interesting question: If eosinophils are not driving the muscle damage in this disease, what might they be doing? We think that eosinophils may be actively involved in the remodeling process, and we have new evidence suggesting that the eosinophils recruited to diseased muscle tissue exhibit distinct functional characteristics consistent with this hypothesis. We are working now to understand these functional characteristics as they apply to eosinophilic inflammation in muscular dystrophy and in other disease states.

You’re at NIAID working on eosinophils concerning this disease? Does this tie into your colleagues’ work here?            

Our findings on eosinophil function in muscular dystrophy add to a growing body of evidence that eosinophils may mediate beneficial processes. This idea was crystallized by Dr. James Lee, who termed the “LIAR” hypothesis of eosinophil function. This hypothesis proposes that eosinophils may actively modulate the local inflammation and repair/remodeling (LIAR) processes.

How long have you been a trainee in NIAID?

As a graduate student, I have spent a little over two years conducting dissertation research at NIAID. Prior to this, I spent three years at my home institution, UCLA, where I took and taught classes and conducted primary research.

In addition to the two years that I have spent conducting doctoral research at NIAID, I spent two years as a postbaccalaureate fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Kirk Druey, also in NIAID. My postbaccalaureate training experience both encouraged and prepared me to pursue graduate studies. Although I am now conducting research in Dr. Helene Rosenberg’s laboratory, I continue to receive input from Dr. Druey and his research group – our two labs maintain a long-standing collaboration, including joint weekly meetings.

As the GPP is designed to be highly collaborative, I am fortunate to receive input and expertise from my NIAID adviser (Dr. Helene Rosenberg), along with input from NIAID and university mentors including Dr. Kirk Druey and Dr. Tomas Ganz.

What attracted you to conduct your graduate research in NIAID?

The outstanding mentorship and research environment available within our research group. But more broadly, the level of scientific and technical resources available at NIAID, which have certainly helped to advance my research project.

For example, our laboratory—which has strong technical expertise with airway inflammation—had minimal experience working with the muscle tissue. For my project, I was fortunate then to find technical expertise from investigators in the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)—who are coincidentally located within our research building. We reached out to an investigator within NIAMS, Dr. Andrew Mammen, whose staff scientist, Dr. Katherine Pak, set aside time to teach us techniques critical to muscle biology. This helped bridge the gap in technical expertise and allowed us to apply our scientific expertise in inflammation toward this intriguing disease context, muscular dystrophy. 

Another example—we were trying to analyze, quantitatively, the level of tissue damage seen in immunofluorescent-labeled sections of muscle tissue. We talked with Dr. Margery Smelkinson of the NIAID Microscopy Core, who developed, within two weeks, new techniques to quantify several features of the disease. We were both impressed at the speed and the application of this novel technique toward the quantitative analysis of our pathology; this analysis was included in our recent paper. 

What was the most surprising/unique/interesting aspect of doing your graduate work at NIH?

The level of community among the graduate students and the trainee community at large. Before I started my doctoral research at NIH, I was unaware of any graduate students conducting research at NIH; I thought the trainees were predominantly postdoctoral fellows. In 2017, when I started my graduate work at NIH, I sought to immerse myself with the graduate student council by joining the Graduate Student Council (GSC); I have since risen to become co-chair of this group. Through my involvement with GSC, I discovered the wonderful work by and for NIH graduate students. These include hosting events designed to promote career and mentoring relationships, coordinating graduate student research seminars to practice presentation skills, and organizing community service events. Through these experiences, I have expanded my professional network, developed my leadership and communication skills. But more importantly, engaging with the graduate student community has introduced me to a diverse set of friends and colleagues, whose company I enjoy and whom I consider to be part of my professional network.

What was the overall highlight of your experience as a graduate student at NIAID?

The level of interaction and mentorship that I have received from my adviser, Dr. Helene Rosenberg, and from members of our research group. This has helped accelerate my project–in a little over two years, I have been able to publish a first-author paper in Journal of Immunology, and I have been fortunate to contribute to related research projects that have also led to publications. It’s amazing how fast we have been able to contribute to research in the field, and I feel quite proud of the work that we have done.

This success has culminated in several awards, most recently, the presidential award at the Society for Leukocyte Biology. I was honored and delighted to be selected to give a short talk at the recent meeting and to receive this prestigious award.

What are your next steps and how has your experience prepared you for the future?

As a next step in my career, I would like to advance preclinical research and drug discovery in a biotechnology company. The research that I have performed here, as part of my doctoral dissertation, has provided me with technical skills that are transferrable to a career in biotechnology. In addition, my training experience has provided me with ample opportunity to practice my written and oral communication skills, which are critical to success with biotechnology careers. 

Do you have any advice for prospective graduate students considering doing part of/most of their Ph.D. research at NIH?

I would say go for it! There are several institutional programs that permit graduate students to conduct doctoral research at NIH; for example, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and Brown Universities all have formal partnership programs with NIH. If you are not part of an institutional program but would still like to conduct research here, check out the GPP. The NIH intramural program has a remarkable breadth of researchers—applicants can almost certainly find a researcher that matches their specific research interests. The collaborative nature of the program, in which graduate students have advisers both at NIH and at a university, provides an exceptional training environment.

How would someone initiate the partnership? Do you recommend reaching out to a PI specifically? Is keeping the search wide or homing into a specific PI the best practice?

Familiarity with the principal investigator (PI) is always the most helpful. If interested applicants know of the investigator from a conference or a prior experience, it may be worth talking to him/her about the possibility of a collaborative graduate program. If the principal investigator is able to take on a student, then it would be helpful to talk with the university and the academic department about satisfying degree requirements through this partnership program. In my experience, most universities are excited to engage in this collaborative program where they can share expertise and resources.

Do you have any final words about your experience?

My experience as a graduate student at NIH was incredibly rewarding and collaborative. I have utilized many of the resources—from discussing careers with the NIAID Predoctoral/Postdoctoral/Visiting Fellow Program Manager, Sydella Blatch, to engaging with career counselors in the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) office. And I have found the graduate student council and the graduate student community to be incredibly helpful in my professional development. 

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