Postbac Spotlight—Extraordinary Science With Extraordinary People

Read this interview with Lizzette Pérez-Pérez, a postbac in the Molecular Pathogenesis Unit (MPU) in the Laboratory of Virology at the NIAID Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana.

Tell me about your research and how it contributes to the mission of your lab.

In the MPU, we aim to elucidate the molecular determinants of pathogenesis on RNA viruses that cause respiratory disease. In the first few months of my postbac, I was developing a minigenome system for Nipah virus (NiV), a zoonotic paramyxovirus with global pandemic potential. NiV requires a biological safety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory, but an efficient minigenome system would allow us to study NiV replication in a BSL-2 laboratory. Since January, my focus switched to a range of SARS-CoV-2 research projects—from the development of a nonhuman primate model (Munster VJ, Feldmann F, Williamson BN et al. Respiratory disease in rhesus macaques inoculated with SARS-CoV-2. Nature. 2020) to evaluating the vaccine candidate (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) (van Doremalen N, Lambe T, Spencer A et al. ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine prevents SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia in rhesus macaques. Nature. 2020(586):578–82) and a therapeutic treatment (remdesivir) (Williamson BN, Feldmann F, Schwarz B et al. Clinical benefit of remdesivir in rhesus macaques infected with SARS-CoV-2. Nature. 2020), the first drug approved for emergency use by the FDA to treat COVID-19.

What do you enjoy most about being a postbac at RML?

Being a postbac at RML, I mainly enjoy my time in the MPU laboratory and the breathtaking scenery from my desk. The thought of being part of a bigger goal, surrounded by extraordinary people that push me to believe in myself, is what I look forward to every day. I have learned so much from my principal investigator (PI), Emmie de Wit, Ph.D., and my ‘partner in crime’ in the lab, Brandi Williamson – our lab is much more than research and data, it’s a place where unexpected experiences become the most interesting contribution to novel insights and a rewarding career pathway.

What has been the most unique thing about working at RML?

As an NIH trainee, I am part of a community of renowned researchers. Indisputably, the unique experience of being a postbac at RML has relied on the great mentorship and guidance from my PI, who taught me the basics of cellular and molecular biology as well as the components required for doing ethical science — from designing the right experiments to interpreting and accepting the data for what it is. Overall, the community at RML, specifically MPU, has created an environment of learning and acceptance.

What are your future plans and how has your postbac experience inspired you?

I joined MPU with little knowledge about viruses and limited background in molecular biology. Nevertheless, I’m fortunate to be part of a fun laboratory with an extraordinary PI and a team that plays a vital role in the responses to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Currently, I’m uncertain what my next steps will be but given my passion for science, I’m sure my future will be in research and who knows, one day I may be the first Hispanic/Latina woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

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