Postdoc Spotlight—Two Campuses United for a Unique Postdoc Experience

Emily Speranza, Ph.D., independent research scholar in the Laboratory of Immune System Biology and former Rocky-Beth postdoctoral fellow.

Credit: NIAID

Emily Speranza, Ph.D. conducted her postdoctoral research training in both the Laboratory of Virology (LV) at RML and the Laboratory of Immune System Biology (LISB) in Bethesda through her participation in the Rocky-Beth Fellowship Program. Emily speaks about this unique postdoctoral experience.

The war between the host and a virus is a complex back-and-forth, each attempting to outwit the other in large and subtle ways. To understand these intricacies, we require knowledge in a variety of fields, particularly expertise in immunology and virology. This is where the Rocky Mountain-Bethesda Fellowship (Rocky-Beth) program comes into play.

I received my Ph.D. in bioinformatics from Boston University where I studied how the host responds to Ebola virus. During my final year in grad school, I met Sonja Best, Ph.D. It was clear to both of us that to truly tease apart the host’s response to infection, it would require analyzing individual cells within tissues. We had the knowledge and the BSL-4 facilities necessary to study Ebola through the application of single-cell sequencing, but we were missing a large factor in modeling the host defense: the spatial organization of tissues. Ronald Germain, M.D., Ph.D., whose lab has years of experience in imaging the immune system, became an important part of this research to fully address the complexities of the host response. It has truly been the best of both worlds; I had the opportunity to experience working at RML and the NIH main campus.

Being part of the Rocky-Beth Fellowship Program allowed me to develop a unique research project with broad applications in the study of emerging infectious diseases. The fellowship has been successful largely because the two mentors, Sonja and Ron, have skills and knowledge that complement each other so well. It is exciting to see this collaboration grow even beyond the fellowship program into bigger projects involving other members of both labs. I have learned how to develop a question and have gained the ability to combine immunology with virology—skills that have allowed me to create a research project that I plan to take forward into the Independent Research Scholars Program, which I was recently awarded.

Sonja Best, Ph.D.

Sonja Best

The Rocky-Beth Program has enabled us to marry three unique sets of expertise to answer fundamental questions regarding the regulation of type I interferon responses and antiviral immunity in tissues. This unique project utilizing high-content imaging, bioinformatics, and animal models of virus infection would not have been feasible at either campus alone. Together, we are applying advanced methods in computational biology to gain a detailed understanding of the ways in which highly pathogenic RNA viruses such as Ebola virus dysregulate innate and adaptive immunity. This also places Emily in a unique position to develop her research program independently of either mentor.

Ronald Germain, M.D., Ph.D.

Ronald Germain

When Emily was suggested by Sonja as a joint fellow, I was enthusiastic because I felt that strengthening RML-Bethesda interactions was an effort long overdue and also because the project (understanding what constrained acute viral infection in vivo) was a topic ripe for combining new genomic tools with our imaging expertise. Little did I realize just how exceptional Emily would be as a joint fellow and the extraordinary benefits of collaborating with Sonja. In the lab, Emily developed a novel method for imaging difficult tissues that applies not only to her project, but one that will be of great value for analysis of infected tissues of diverse origin. I also came to understand just how expert she is in bioinformatics, leading to her involvement in multiple additional laboratory projects and to teaching the basics to others during the “research pause.” Emily’s receipt of the Independent Research Scholar position is well-deserved recognition of her combination of talents and her exciting future as a laboratory leader.

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