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PhD candidate - Immunology

An interview with Justin

What is your work here? What are you hoping to discover? Why will it be important?

I am currently a first year PhD student. The project I am working on is integrating a technique called DISSECT (Disaggregation for Intracellular Signalling in Single Epithelial Cells from Tissue) that can isolate single cells from formalin-fixed paraffin embedded colorectal cancer (CRC) specimens to phospho-flow cytometry. The aim is to analyse the canonical WNT signalling pathway in T cells in CRC patients and see if they play a role in the overall patient survival.

This will be important in CRC research since canonical WNT signalling is increased in tumour compared to non-tumour bowel in CRC patients. However, the exact mechanism of the effect of canonical WNT signalling in T cells in cancer patients is not fully known.

The project would attempt to answer three questions:

  1. Does the increase in activated β-catenin, as response to WNT signalling stimulation in T cells from CRC patients, affect its function?
  2. Would inhibiting WNT/β-catenin signalling on T cells improve CRC patient response to immune checkpoint inhibitors and other immunotherapy modalities?
  3. Would this response explain the T cell profile in CRC tumours?

In using the DISSECT technique, we can better correlate the immune profile of CRC patients to their overall survival since the technique would be using archived tissue samples with corresponding patient survival data. By understanding how WNT/β-catenin signalling affects T cells in CRC patients, we may have better understanding of how CRC tumours evade the immune response mounted by T cells. Through this, new therapeutic modalities may be introduced in order to improve CRC patient treatment and survival.

What attracted you to this area of research? What excites you about it?

I have always been interested in immunology as a field of research. I am especially interested in how the human immune system responds to infection and cancer and how the immune system can be boosted. The exciting part of the research is figuring out at the molecular level how the immune system works and potentially creating a way in which we can help boost the immune response.

What is the most difficult element of your work?

The most difficult element in doing the PhD project is optimisation of DISSECT and phosphoflow technique in order to analyse properly the signalling pathway of interest.

What's it like working in a Lab? How did you come to be working here in this Lab?

I have always loved working in the laboratory during my undergraduate studies.

There are days wherein it can be stressful but knowing that you can help fill in the gaps in knowledge excites me. It gives me a sense of purpose.

I was already planning on doing postgraduate studies in my third year of undergraduate studies in Otago (taking up Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences). Knowing that I am interested in immunology, I started looking for potential supervisors. I was drawn to the molecular aspect of immunology and I saw that the laboratory of Associate Professor Roslyn Kemp is doing research in applied and molecular immunology through the Department of Microbiology and Immunology's website. I decided to email her and ask if I could attend some of her lab meetings. I did my honours year in her laboratory as well and now I am doing my PhD with her.

What direction do you want your career to grow in?

I have always wanted to be a University Professor. I most likely want my career to grow in the direction of academia.

What are the most important things you've had to learn to do well at your work?

The most important things that I had to learn to do well at my work are not laboratory skills and techniques.

I would say that the three most important things I had to learn are 1) communication, 2) honesty, and 3) perseverance.

Communication is important in order for science to grow and advance. Honesty to yourself when you do not know something or are struggling with the concept would lead you to seek help and learn the necessary skills to tackle your problem. Perseverance as experiments would normally be hard and results would not be what you are expecting.

What advice would you give to someone in school who aspires to research?

If you are interested in going into research, find something you are passionate/deeply interested with and try to find someone doing research in that field already. Communicate with them and you'd be surprised that, more often than not, they would take time to answer your email and help you decide in moving forward. Also, be true to yourself. We cannot know everything and it is okay to admit that and ask for help.

Where did you grow up? What things interested you about the world as a child?

I was born in Manila, Philippines and I grew up there. I have always been fascinated about the natural world and how things work. I would often disassemble things at home just to find out how they work. I love reading and I would often read random things growing up. I even read encyclopedia articles (we still had printed hardbound encyclopedia volumes during my childhood).

What subjects did you enjoy most at school? The least?

I really enjoyed science, especially biology and chemistry. I struggled with geometry a lot and Filipino language class as my first language was English.

Looking back, were there people in your family or community who influenced your field of study or sparked your interest?

I took up a Bachelor of Science Majoring in Human Biology during my first undergraduate studies in Manila, Philippines. A professor, teaching cellular biology assigned a paper for me to discuss in class. The paper was about the p53 gene and its role in cancer progression. This got me interested in molecular biology.
During my primary school years, I was really interested in science classes and one of my teachers cultivated that interest. She even gave me a small figurine with an inscription about doing well in science and having a potential career in the field. I still have that in my room back home in the Philippines.

Where did you do your undergraduate study?

I did two undergraduate studies. My first undergraduate study was in Manila, Philippines at the De La Salle University – Manila. I did a Bachelor of Science Majoring in Human Biology. My second undergraduate study was in Dunedin, New Zealand at the University of Otago. I did a Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences Majoring in Infection and Immunity.

What do you enjoy outside your work here?

I love going on walks and tramps. I also love reading books. I have a passion for cooking. If I'm not a researcher, I would actually be a chef and open up a restaurant.

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