An international research team co-led by the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada has established a technique that discovers dramatic biological changes unfold during newborns’ first week of life,published earlier this year in Nature Communications. We were intrigued to learn more about this amazing technique from Dr. Amy Lee, the co-lead author of the paper, and had the chance to interview Amy at the Hancock lab, UBC.
Amy explains that given the major challenges of obtaining the amount of blood that can safely be obtained from a newborn to study their immune development, the research team developed methods to minimize the amount needed and were able to capture massive information from <1 ml (<1/4 teaspoon) of blood. This was the most comprehensive research yet performed during the first week of human life and identifies that development occur in a coordinated manner across multiple molecular compartments (transcripts,proteins, metabolites) and follows a precise and age-specific path.
Our Corresponding Editor, Dr. Priyanka Mishra, Postdoc at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada, spoke to Dr. Amy Lee and these are the excerpts:
PM: A short professional bio?
AL: I am a systems biologist, working at the intersection of host-pathogen interactions. I apply a wide variety of omic techniques to understand how bacteria adapt to cause infectious diseases, and how the immune system responds to these infections.
PM: Why science? What is your favourite part of working in science? What gets you out of bed every morning?
AL: Science is fun! Science gives us the opportunity to find out new things about the world around us everyday. My favourite part of working in science is discussing and sharing ideas with others.
PM: Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
AL: Charles Darwin. He is essentially the founding father of evolutionary biology and his work still influences us (and my own research) to this day.
PM: Why you elected to hold a postdoctoral fellowship at UBC and work with your current supervisor Dr. Bob Hancock?
AL: Bob Hancock’s lab (http://cmdr.ubc.ca/bobh/about-hancock/) is the perfect environment for me to pursue host-pathogen interactions. His interests in bacterial antibiotic resistance, bacterial virulence strategies, and host innate immune response to pathogens are well-aligned with my research interests. In general, Bob runs a large group with 6-10 postdoctoral researchers at any one time, so it really is a very intellectually dynamic and stimulating environment. The added bonus is that the lab is very interactive and social, including the weekly Friday social, regular lab parties and BBQs.
PM: Could you explain in lay terms the research you are currently involved in? What is/are this project trying to find out and the motivation behind it?
AL: One major question that we are trying to understand is why the neonatal or the newborn period (i.e. the first 28 days of life) is the most vulnerable time for a child. According to WHO, 2.6 million deaths, which represents 46% of all uner-five deaths, occur during this time. This roughly translates to 7,000 newborn deaths everyday. So if we can figure out why, then maybe we can start developing strategies to prevent and intervene. This is essentially the driving goal behind forming the Expanded Program on Immunization Consortium (EPIC), which is an association of academic centers from around the world including: Boston Children’s Hospital (Boston, MA, USA), the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada), Medical Research Council—The Gambia (Fajara, The Gambia), the Free University of Brussels (Brussels, Belgium), and the Telethon Kids Institute (Perth, Australia) is partnering to study pediatric systems vaccinology.
PM: What would you say is the most exciting finding in your field which helps shaped your research?
AL: One of the most important finding in the vaccinology field is this idea that your immune baseline can predict how you respond to vaccine and whether you develop protective immunity.
See work from John Tsang for instance: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4139290/
PM: Research contribution you deem to be the most important, and tell its significance in terms of how it influences the direction of thought and activity within the target community.
AL: Along this idea that immune baseline can predict vaccine response, in our large collaborative work (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-08794-x), we want to define what is a newborn immune baseline and see how it changes during the first week of life. Our work shows that newborn immune system is highly dynamic (within the first week that we assayed), in contrast to the relatively stable adult immune system.
PM: What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
AL: I wouldn’t say this is a controversy per se, but really two different hypotheses for neonatal immune development. Currently we are working towards untangling whether the developmental trajectory that we observed during the first week of life is due to: (1) a proactive, purposeful developmental ontogeny or (2) a reactive, restricted response (i.e. stereotypic immune system development).
PM: How could your research can contribute to a scientific breakthrough?
AL: Untangling these two different hypothese could help us understand neonatal immune development, ultimately helping us to better diagnose, prevent and treat disease during this early critical time period.
PM: Life as a postdoc researcher?
AL: It has been a great experience working in Bob’s lab. We have a fantastic group of researchers with many exciting collaborative projects that allow me to travel all around the world. So I have really enjoyed the freedom to explore new research directions and interacting with my colleagues.
PM: What next Academia or Industry: Why academia? / If industry than why this transition?
AL: Academia. I’ve always enjoyed the academic research environment, including the opportunities to mentor and interact with students.
PM: What are the challenges you find in anticipating a stable research career?
AL: One major challenge with being a postdoctoral researcher is that you are on a term contract and the future seems uncertain as you try to find your career direction. So in certain aspects, it feels as if your life is on pause.
PM: How your activities demonstrate your leadership and sphere of influence at the institutional level and beyond. And the impact and importance of those activities in terms of your career aspirations.
AL: I am a strong believer that science can progress faster and better if we have open communication on data sharing, data analyses, and the final results. One “extracurricular” activity that I have been incolved in is to start the UBC R Study Group with the Mozilla Science Lab, which is a local coding group for scientists, graduate students, and coders to come together and learn best coding practices. In addition, I have been actively involved in building strong open science community by being involved with various organizations including the Vancouver Bioinformatic User Group, Software Carpentry and hackseq.
PM: What are your major interests outside the lab?
AL: I really enjoy baking (culturing my own sourdough), knitting and doing pottery.
PM: What is the one piece of advice you could give to someone considering a research career?
AL: Your research environment is at times more important than the research question. Spend lots of time talking to your future colleagues to get a sense of the research environment, interactions and dynamics.