Postbac Spotlight—Infectious Disease Immunology and Inspiration

Sophie Vrba, postbac in the Viral Immunity and Pathogenesis Unit of the Laboratory of Clinical Immunology & Microbiology (LCIM)

Credit: NIAID

Sophie Vrba is a postbac in the Viral Immunity and Pathogenesis Unit of the Laboratory of Clinical Immunology & Microbiology (LCIM) where she works under the supervision of Heather Hickman, Ph.D. Sophie also participated in the NIH Academy, a postbac program that offers trainees the opportunity to learn about health disparities, enhance their knowledge of gaps in health outcomes, and investigate what is being done to address health disparity issues. Read about Sophie’s experience at NIAID and her next steps.

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

Research in the Viral Immunity and Pathogenesis Unit centers around understanding antiviral immune responses in peripheral barrier sites (e.g., mouth and skin) and lymphoid tissue. My project builds upon recently published work from people in my lab who discovered a novel role of type 1 innate lymphoid cells (ILC1s) in providing early protection to viral infections in the oral mucosa. Tissue resident memory CD8+ T cells (TRM) are another important cell type that responds to viral infections. I am examining the interactions and functions of ILC1s and TRM in the oral mucosa to better understand the distinct functions that these cell types have in our immune response following a viral infection. 

What inspired you to do a postbac at NIAID?

During my undergrad, I became fascinated with viruses—their ability to subvert host immune responses, their impact on society at large, and their ability to often amplify unacceptable health disparities. I enjoyed my undergrad thesis research in a virology lab; however, I found myself wanting to learn more about the various immune cells that I was measuring in assays. NIAID seemed like the obvious choice to deepen my knowledge in immunology, prompting me to apply for a postbaccalaureate research position to gain more experience in immunology.

What have you enjoyed most about being a postbac at NIAID?

There are so many aspects that I enjoy about being a postbac at NIAID! My favorite has been the ability to interact with and learn from so many renowned scientists. I have had an incredible mentor and many informal mentors who helped inform the future scientist that I aspire to become. I highly recommend attending lunches with visiting speakers as well! Also, I love coffee at the ‘Coffee Place’ in Building 10.

Explain your experience as part of the NIH Academy?

As a member of the NIH Academy Certificate Program, I was able to hear from experts in various areas dealing with health disparities, participate in conversations with other postbacs, and volunteer in my community. Specifically, I learned more about health disparities in relation to women’s health, access to mental health services, and intimate partner violence. I will carry these lessons with me, and I hope to continue growing as an advocate. I highly recommend that incoming postbacs interested in expanding their knowledge of health disparities apply.

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

I will be joining the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health this summer. When I started at the NIH, I had planned to pursue an M.D.; however, my time as a postbac was instrumental in inspiring me to apply to become an M.D./Ph.D. I was able to see current physician-scientists at my department meetings, during the Undiagnosed Disease Program rounds, and through shadowing in the ICU. These experiences, the encouragement of my research mentor, and my research inspired me to apply to become a physician-scientist.

Link any publications or structures you have

Shannon JP, Vrba SM, Reynoso GV, Wynne-Jones E, Kamenyeva O, Malo CS, Cherry CR, McManus DT, Hickman HD. Group 1 innate lymphoid-cell-derived interferon-γ maintains anti-viral vigilance in the mucosal epithelium. Immunity. 2021;54:276-290e5.

Learn more about postbaccalaureate training opportunities at NIAID.
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