In one of America’s rare undergraduate immunology programs, students are ‘preparing for the next pandemic’

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rep immuno lab ov 550pxUAB's Undergraduate Immunology Program, one of a handful of immunology majors available in the United States, gives students real lab experience with more than 100 faculty pursuing cutting-edge research.The entire planet, more or less, is fixated on the greatest pandemic in modern memory. Claire Elliott is already preparing for the next one.

Elliott, a junior from Franklin, Tennessee, is part of UAB’s Undergraduate Immunology Program, one of a handful of such programs at universities in the United States. In high school, where she was part of an International Baccalaureate program, “my biology teacher was extremely passionate about the immune system,” Elliott said. “I heard about the immunology program at UAB and absolutely loved it.” Elliott, who plans to apply to an accelerated master’s program at UAB next year, hopes to pursue clinical research or a job in public health or epidemiology. She is part of the first cohort of students in the program, which launched in fall 2017 and is a collaboration between the School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I have been getting a lot of questions from friends and family because of COVID-19,” Elliott said. “Many of them don’t realize that a vaccine is not the same thing as a cure or treatment. I also have gotten a lot of questions about how the immune system works to protect you from diseases like COVID-19 and how to protect those more at risk.” Elliott’s classmate, Nour Moughnyeh, said “I’ve also been asked quite a bit about the structure of COVID-19 and if I can compare it to the flu so they can get a better understanding of the situation.” 

The immune system is an elaborate network of molecules, cells and tissues that work together to defend the body against invading pathogens and disease.  Immunologists — including the renowned investigators at UAB — study this system. Students in the Undergraduate Immunology Program are required to spend a minimum of six credit hours in UAB’s labs, where they can select from positions with more than 100 UAB faculty who are pursuing cutting-edge research in immunology. Many students go far beyond that minimum requirement. Junior McKinley Williams has already “worked in multiple labs at UAB,” she said — first in pediatric infectious diseases research and now in the lab of Michael Seifert, M.D., a pediatric nephrologist in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and at Children’s of Alabama. “The project I am currently working on is a study of immunological rejection and other factors contributing to transplant failure in over 150 renal transplant patients,” she said.

On the front lines

“Immunology is — obviously given the circumstances — a very up-and-coming field and it is very exciting to be on the front lines of understanding such a complex science,” Williams said.

What is obvious now was not so clear a few months ago, when Louis Justement, Ph.D., co-director of the UIP and professor in the Department of Microbiology, and UAB colleagues wrote a paper in the journal Frontiers in Immunology calling for a revolution in the way immunology is taught. “Knowledge in the field of immunology is expanding rapidly, bolstering the need for increased time in the curriculum to facilitate the ability of educators to convey information so that it can be effectively understood and applied,” wrote Justement and his co-authors, Heather Bruns, Ph.D., and Jill Deaver. “We propose that it is time for a renaissance in immunology education at the undergraduate level to better prepare individuals who will subsequently pursue careers in medicine, related health professions, and biomedical research.”

“Immunology is — obviously given the circumstances — a very up-and-coming field and it is very exciting to be on the front lines of understanding such a complex science.”

The article was written before the novel coronavirus that causes COVID–19 emerged in China. But its recommendation resonates loudly in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. Today, the vast majority of potential immunologists really only encounter the field in any depth in professional or graduate school, Justement said. This is a far cry from the situation in neuroscience, which has taken off as an undergraduate major during the past several decades. That is one crucial reason why the pipeline of future immunologists — the experts who will design a new generation of vaccines, diagnostic tests and treatments for future pandemics — is relatively meager, Justement said.

“Studying the immune system is hard, and it can take some time before things start to click,” Elliott said. “We have amazing faculty who truly want us to thrive in our learning.”

A next generation for the next pandemic

“We hope to make a difference in creating the next generation of immunologists in health care and research for the next pandemic,” said Bruns, an associate professor in Microbiology. “We’re almost certainly going to be dealing with a pandemic again in our lifetimes. We’ve had three major coronavirus outbreaks in the past 20 years — SARS, MERS and now COVID–19.”

Immunology is a highly interdisciplinary field — a combination of cellular and molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry, physiology and anatomy — that touches every other major organ system and plays a major role in health and disease, Bruns said. In addition to tackling problems such as pandemic viral outbreaks, immunologists are also making ever greater contributions to the fights against cancer, allergies and asthma and efforts to expand organ transplantation to more patients.

Yet according to data that Bruns, Justement and Deaver gathered from the National Center for Educational Statistics, there were only 10 immunology-related majors offered in the United States in 2017–18 — most of them a combination of microbiology and immunology. By comparison, there were 210 undergraduate programs in neuroscience. (UAB’s Undergraduate Neuroscience Program, now a decade old, enrolls roughly 80 students per year, while the UIP brings in 20-25, Justement said.)

“We always say, ‘It’s tough to compete against those cool pictures of the brain,’” Bruns said. “A lymph node doesn’t look like much in comparison.”

rep immunology seminarHeather Bruns, Ph.D. (center) and Fran Lund, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Microbiology (right, partially obscured), look on as students in an honors seminar for freshmen take part in a Skype call with Matt Richtel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book on the immune system the class was reading (see this related story). The Undergraduate Immunology Program is a collaboration between the departments of Microbiology and Biology.

Sharing what they know

But the COVID–19 pandemic has changed that. “We think it’s exciting to be an immunology major at any time, but certainly now,” Justement said. As the scale of the crisis in Wuhan, China emerged in January, Rodney King, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Microbiology, began to incorporate regular updates to his junior-level class on adaptive immunity. Bruns, who has joined King in teaching the class as it transitions to remote teaching, has started sending emails to her students that link the latest research papers and news articles to subjects they have covered in class. Justement, who teaches the freshman course on Current Topics in Immunology, is planning to add a focus on the therapeutic potential of using serum from convalescent patients to help those newly infected with COVID–19.

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“We’re currently doing a journal analysis on immune responses to COVID-19 and potential vaccines,” Moughnyeh said. It has been fascinating to read about responses to the SARS and MERS pandemics and how “similar patterns are happening in this current pandemic,” she said.

When the students returned from an extended spring break to resume their formerly in-person classes online, Bruns said she was struck with how many had been able to use their training to help educate friends and family members.

“I have been getting lots of questions,” said J. Brandon Taylor Harris. “They’re often asking if the media is exaggerating claims being made about the virus’s ability to spread quickly or harm victims. They’re worried that the news is lying to them about the severity of the virus and that such widespread quarantine is overkill.” Friends and family also have questions about why older people are more vulnerable than other groups or ask for help in interpreting the results of studies and academic papers, he said.

“The current pandemic has strongly reinforced my decision to pursue a degree in immunology and shows how important this career is,” Harris said. He plans to earn a doctorate in immunology and become a researcher. “I’m leaning towards focusing on mucosal immunology and studying how being vaccinated against parasitic worms could prevent inflammatory diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, asthma and autoimmunity,” Harris said. Moughnyeh, who plans to apply to optometry school, has been particularly intrigued by the effects of autoimmune diseases on the eyes. “I noticed most times the eye is affected in some way as a result of these diseases,” she said. “I got really passionate about wanting to advocate for eye care and really emphasize to people just how much about your overall health can be revealed through the health of your eyes.”  

“We want people to realize that scientists are heroes — and immunologists are really important scientists,” Bruns said.

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