MEdically-oriented Research in Graduate Education-INFlammation (MERGE-INF)
MERGE-INF is specifically designed to provide strong training in basic molecular and cellular immunology, the immunology of chronic diseases, as well as in-depth knowledge of the pathogenesis, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of inflammatory diseases including infections. We integrate clinical studies and patient contact throughout the training period.
The realization on the part of the scientific and medical communities that inflammation plays a role in many diseases, causing substantial morbidity and contributing to mortality, has fundamentally changed how we think about pathogenesis. Inflammation is directly involved in asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, stroke and psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, unipolar and bipolar depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Importantly, inflammation is involved in at least 8 of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States today. Given the prevalence of inflammation in the human population, it is clear that research in inflammatory disease and related mechanisms should be a major scientific and medical priority.
The faculty of the Immunology Program is drawn from multiple departments, including Cellular and Molecular Immunology, Developmental, Molecular & Chemical Biology, Medicine, and Molecular Biology & Microbiology. This diversity is a distinct strength of the Program, as it assures the student broad exposure to research topics and approaches. It also maximizes opportunities for a student to find a research faculty advisor to serve as thesis mentor. Students begin the program in the summer with introductory courses and by pairing with clinical mentors that provide direct contact with patients, their diseases and their physicians. This is a critical part of developing translational research approaches to health-related research. Five or six cases are examined in detail and include a variety of diseases, such as endocarditis, systemic lupus erythematosus, hepatitis, scleroderma and asthma. An associated problem-based learning course provides interactive training in the analysis of pathogenesis.
During the first academic year students complete an Introductory course in immunology, biochemistry, advanced cellular immunology, signaling in cells of the immune system and the genetic analysis of immune responses. Beyond the first-year Introduction to Immunology and Biochemistry courses, all courses are based on primary sources and are taught as interactive tutorials. Interactive workshops in data analysis and informatics are part of the training. Training in fellowship grant writing is provided. Students are required to participate in classroom teaching for one semester.
Students complete four laboratory rotations in year one. These introduce the student to hands-on experience in a variety of techniques and research problems and familiarize them with potential thesis laboratories. Because of the flexibility designed into the program, a student may alter career objectives after admission.
The Immunology Program aims to provide a supportive environment that helps each student realize his or her fullest potential. Students are encouraged to work hard, be creative and have the confidence to be exploratory, yet at the same time to understand that science flourishes in an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration.
We are looking for students with a curiosity-driven passion for research and the ability to perform laboratory-based experiments. The Immunology Program is dedicated to the premise that a diverse student body enriches the educational experience of all.
After a summer that introduces clinical aspect of inflammation and pathogenesis first year students become thoroughly immersed in immunology through foundation and advanced courses in the discipline. They also participate in journal club, seminars and research workshops, in addition to completing four laboratory rotations.
An unusual feature of this program is that students take their qualifying examination at the end of the first year, allowing them to concentrate on their thesis research going forward. The exam consists of a written research proposal and its oral defense. The purpose of this examination is to test the ability of the student to create and critically test hypotheses. A unique feature of our exam is that students are mentored by faculty to learn how real proposals are developed. Upon successful completion of the first year courses and the qualifying examination, students select a research mentor and begin their thesis work.
Thesis research experience is considered the core of a student's training. Students enter their labs at the beginning of year two. Typically, graduates of the Program generate at least two first author papers based on their research. Support to attend national meetings is available.
The Program has a student advisor who acts as an ombudsperson and student advocate.
The thesis research of four most recent PhD graduates illustrate the breadth of the work done by students in the Program:
- Elizabeth DeRiso, PhD, 2017; Stephen Bunnell, Advisor: Postdoctoral Fellow, Ragon Institute
Elizabeth showed how NEMO (NF-κB essential modulator) functions in the T cell receptor activation pathway.
- Michelle Paczosa, PhD, 2017; Joan Mecsas, Advisor; Postdoctoral Fellow, U Mass Medical School
Michelle developed a genetic screen that allowed her to identify Klebsiella pneumoniae virulence factors, in particular, those that counter defense by neutrophils.
- Bridget Larkin, PhD, 2017; Alexander Poltorak, Advisor; Scientist, Chimera
Bridget discovered that STING, a known detector of cytoplasmic DNA in macrophages and dendritic cells, is expressed in T cells and regulates their function.
- Maria RePass, PhD, 2018; Honorine Ward, Advisor; BTW Clark and Elbing, LLP; Patent law agent-in-training
Maria created a three-dimensional model of infection of the human intestine by Cryptosporidium parvum that for the first time allows long-term in vitro propagation of this protozoan parasite.