PhD student-advisor pairs awarded HHMI Gilliam Fellowships for research, inclusion initiatives

Two student-advisor pairs at UW–Madison have received Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

HHMI Gilliam Fellowships have a twofold mission: to support underrepresented PhD students to pursue scientific research and to foster more inclusive academic environments at institutions that are committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

UW–Madison PhD student Abbey Williams and advisor Lisa Arendt, and PhD candidate Aldo Arellano and advisor Kerri Coon, are 2021 fellows with HHMI. The students will join a strong community of early-career scientists, while the advisors will participate in mentorship development training. Both will receive funding to implement diversity and inclusion initiatives on campus.

Abbey Williams and Lisa Arendt: Breast cancer metastasis and immune cell response in obese patients

Abbey Williams
Abbey Williams

Abbey Williams, a PhD student in Comparative Biomedical Sciences, and her advisor, Lisa Arendt, an associate professor in Comparative Biosciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine, study how obesity affects the risk of breast cancer progression.

Williams studies T cells, a type of white blood cell central to the body’s immune response, and how they can become more active against cancer metastasis. A cancer therapy called checkpoint blockade therapy blocks immune-suppressive markers to help T cells more actively fight metastatic lesions.

“Interestingly, these therapies are actually more effective in obese patients, and it’s not really known why,” Williams said.

To better understand these responses, Williams studies immune cells in the lungs of obese mice. The lungs are a common site of metastasis in breast cancer. Using methods such as immunohistochemistry, immunofluorescence, and flow cytometry, she studies how the immune cells are functioning within obese lungs. She also plans to use a NanoString Immune Exhaustion panel, a newer technology on campus, to look at the genetic expression of immune cells.

In addition to T cells, Williams also studies another immune cell called a macrophage, which is known to affect T cell function. She plans to investigate how different macrophage numbers in the lungs can change how effective checkpoint blockade therapy is for an obese patient.

“I hope that we can better understand why obese breast cancer patients have better responses to these therapies and perhaps apply some of those markers and phenotypes to other patients that aren’t overweight, but also improve those therapies for obese patients even further,” Williams said.

Lisa Arendt
Lisa Arendt

Arendt said that her lab’s research slowed during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that gave students like Williams time to think and explore new directions for the lab’s work.

“Immunotherapy is definitely a new area for my lab,” Arendt said. “As Abbey and I were thinking about projects and what she wanted to work on, she was really a driving force in choosing immunotherapy and kind of taking it in that direction.”

In addition to the research support, Williams and Arendt are excited that the Gilliam Fellowship supports diversity, inclusion, and mentorship training.

“With this award, I’m really hoping to work on some of the inclusive parts of this, so that as we bring in a more diverse student group, the students actually feel welcome and they feel supported in the program,” Arendt said.

Among their proposed initiatives are inclusive teaching training for School of Veterinary Medicine faculty, offering a cultural competence inventory as a discussion point for students and their mentors, and sharing research on how to support students of diverse backgrounds, including those with disabilities.

“Some of the conversations about students with disabilities in graduate studies is kind of lacking,” said Williams, who has cerebral palsy and hearing loss. “I’m hoping that with this money, we can begin those conversations and hopefully bring awareness to that some graduate students might have disabilities and how the mentors could support them.”

Separately from the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship, Williams is also working to launch a Bioscience Graduate Student Diversity Initiative, a student-run program that will help coordinate diversity efforts in bioscience graduate programs at UW–Madison so that more students can benefit from programs that are developed.

“I’m looking forward to helping with some of that work and being more of a voice as a student with a disability, just being that representation that I didn’t have in college and learning how to make things better for students like me and using those professional development skills throughout the rest of my training,” Williams added.

Aldo Arellano and Kerri Coon: Mosquito-microbe interactions

Aldo Arellano, a PhD candidate in the Microbiology Doctoral Training Program, and Kerri Coon, assistant professor of Bacteriology, have a colony of a mosquito species called Wyeomyia smithii in the lab that they use to study the interactions between microbes and these unique mosquitos. Unlike the common image of mosquitos as biting pests, adult females of Wyeomyia smithii that live in the northern U.S. don’t draw blood to produce eggs.

What makes them even more unique is their habitat. They only live, lay eggs, and grow in a pitcher plant that is native to bog environments such as those in northern Wisconsin.

The lab is trying to understand the basic principles of microbial communities, such as how they change in response to constantly being around these mosquitos, and perhaps how the mosquitos have evolved away from feeding on blood, Arellano said.

“Taking a blood meal is what makes certain mosquito species such capable vectors. That’s how they transmit disease-causing agents,” Arellano said. “If we can understand – over evolutionary time – how a constant association with a particular environment, the likes of which these larvae are constantly being associated with in these pitchers, has led to a loss of the need for blood feeding in certain parts of their range, it could be really illustrative of the factors that shape vectorial capacity in these and other mosquitoes.”

Having Wyeomyia smithii in a lab is unique, with very few labs including Coon’s lab and the Bradshaw-Holzapfel lab at the University of Oregon keeping it in continuous culture, Coon said. The Oregon lab collected their mosquitos at Trout Lake in northern Wisconsin.

Kerri Coon
Kerri Coon

“Wisconsin bogs have sort of stood out as a really great resource in that way,” Coon said. Decades later, Coon contacted the lab in Oregon for help starting her own colony at UW–Madison. “It makes me smile to think we brought [the mosquitos] home in a way.”

Arellano studied biology and ecology as an undergraduate and was already drawn to studying insects. As a doctoral student in microbiology, he was excited to have the opportunity to still implement the methods and knowledge he learned as an undergrad.

“I’ve been able to leverage a lot of my ecology background and really frame the questions I’m asking from that ecology and natural history perspective,” Arellano said.

The interactions between the mosquitos, pitcher plants, and bogs in which they live are all pieces of a puzzle that researchers in the lab can move and manipulate to answer their research questions.

“It’s a unique example of a complex ecological system that we have the power in the lab to manipulate,” Coon said. For example, over her career Coon has worked to develop ways to breed microbe-free mosquitos that can be reintroduced to specific microbial species to study their functions.

“We’re borrowing from a lot of techniques in the microbiology world that have been used for years to study the human microbiome in mice and other mammalian models and we’re harnessing those techniques to understand how these interactions shape ecosystem function and mosquito biology,” Coon added.

Both Arellano and Coon are excited to join the cohort of HHMI Fellows.

“I’m excited to join an active and robust community of fellows and advisors that are engaged in mentorship and putting into focus inclusivity in the research that we do and making sure that the research is including people from all walks of life and all backgrounds,” Arellano said.

Coon is also excited to be part of a formal training program for research mentors.

“This is a chance to refine my mentoring philosophy and how I translate that in practice to meet the needs of all of my students, regardless of their background,” Coon said. “I’m so grateful – especially as an early career faculty member – to have the opportunity to learn from other faculty at different career stages and to bounce ideas off of them and to hopefully influence them with new perspectives, too.”