By studying the molecular signals that shape the immune response to disease, 2021 Hertz Fellow Gita Abhiraman hopes to improve therapies for cancer and infectious diseases.
An MD-PhD student at Stanford University, Abhiraman focuses her research on molecular mechanisms that underlie human disease and immunity. She received a bachelor’s degree in physics, with a focus on biophysics, from Harvard University in 2018.
On her current research:
I’m interested in studying the molecular mechanisms that help drive the human immune response to disease. Specifically, I look at interactions between ligands and receptors that help the immune system decide how to respond.
When we get sick, there’s a very complicated orchestration of cells and signals that decide whether the body defends us from the disease or tolerates the disease. I am trying to engineer new interactions between immune receptors and ligands to alter the course of the immune response to disease, trying to boost the response in the context of cancer or infectious disease, or perhaps inhibit the response in the context of autoimmune disease.
On the future of her field:
One of the biggest challenges facing immunology and human health research is taking into consideration a broader and more global population. I think a lot of studies on the immune system and on clinical trials related to new therapies have been conducted on a very narrow population. So, often the goal of a study is to reduce heterogeneity in the sample, studying one gender or one race at a time. I think to really understand the immune system, we need to do broader studies, accounting for more diverse populations, and also ensure that new therapies can be accessed by these same diverse populations.
On being a woman in science:
Being a woman in science is a big part of my identity, also identifying as a person of color in science is another part of my identity, and I really hope to improve equity in STEM during my career. I feel strongly that there’s a lot of talent that is overlooked when we allow the existing channels to run without interruption.
I do think that there is a lot of opportunity for people who are at later stages in their career. The further I get, the more I want to be a mentor to people in the stages right before me. I feel very passionate about being a mentor to students, and I hope that this is something I can spend more time doing.