Lauren Robertson, PhD ’18, will use her training in the biological sciences to pursue work on the development of a tuberculosis vaccine while mentoring high school students on the side.
May 15, 2018 – Lauren Robertson had always been keenly interested in science and health, but it was a molecular biology workshop that she attended as an undergrad at Smith College that helped her figure out how to channel that passion into action.
“[It was] for researchers and biotech executives who were interested in opening their own labs,” said Robertson, who saw firsthand the link between the research being done in labs and the potential to develop new therapeutics and drugs. “And I really started seeing a very intimate connection between translation and research, and how much I wanted to be a part of that.”
After college, Robertson joined the lab of James Mitchell, associate professor of genetics and complex diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as a research assistant where she studied connections between dietary restriction—such as limiting calorie intake or fasting—and improved resistance to surgical stress.
The three years she spent working in Mitchell’s lab piqued Robertson’s interest in further studying the underlying mechanisms behind the development of diseases, leading her to pursue a PhD in biological sciences, working with Gokhan S. Hotamisligil, J.S. Simmons Professor of Genetics and Metabolism, chair of the Department of Molecular Metabolism, and director of the Sabri Ülker Center.
The Ülker Center studies the interplay between metabolism and a range of diseases. The lab offered Robertson the opportunity to do translational research in an interdisciplinary and collaborative environment.
“I wanted a department where I would have a chance to work on a variety of public health problems,” said Robertson, adding that Hotamisligil’s lab also offered an international component—both in the diversity of its researchers and the opportunity to travel to conferences outside the U.S. “I think that being at a public health school, which is geared toward international development, creates this mentality that makes you want to work on diseases that are internationally relevant. And in my case, it provided the opportunity to study mechanisms of disease development that can have an immediate translational impact.”
Metabolism’s role in disease
Robertson’s work at Harvard Chan School has focused on metabolism’s role in tuberculosis (TB) and type 1 diabetes. TB is a particularly vexing problem for public health researchers because the bacteria is so effective at evading treatment and the body’s immune system. The disease killed nearly 1.7 million people in 2016, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. While treatment exists, it can often take several months to contain the disease, and even then, drugs may not entirely eliminate TB bacteria.
The Hotamisligil lab is particularly interested in lipid metabolism, which has been shown in prior studies to serve as an energy source for TB, helping the bug survive and evade the immune system. Targeting metabolism could be a way to make TB bacteria more vulnerable, and thus make existing treatments more effective, Robertson said.
Robertson believes that focusing on metabolism could also prove useful in addressing type 1 diabetes, a chronic autoimmune disease that develops when beta cells in the pancreas stop producing insulin, the hormone that controls blood-sugar levels.
She says type 1 diabetes is now being understood as a “metaflammatory” disease—one that encompasses aspects of both metabolic regulation and inflammatory dysregulation. As a result, new therapies are needed that will target both inflammatory pathways and metabolic ones. A key challenge with the condition is that even when taking insulin, many diabetics have difficulty managing their blood sugar—known as glycemic control. But by focusing on the cellular mechanisms at play with diabetes, scientists like Robertson are hoping to develop treatments that can supplement traditional insulin replacement therapy to help maintain glycemic control. “Most interestingly, there is are emerging epidemics of tuberculosis and diabetes co-occurring in large numbers, a very challenging problem to understand and treat,” said Hotamisligil. “Our school gives us the right environment and expertise to tackle such challenging problems”.
Camaraderie and collaboration
This year, Robertson was awarded the Barry R. and Irene Tilenius Bloom Fellowship, which provides critical financial aid aimed at transforming a student’s vision of a public health career into a reality.
And Robertson’s commitment to public health extends beyond the lab. She calls herself a science advocate and spends time mentoring high school students, inspired by her introduction to research at an early age.
“I was fortunate to be exposed to research in high school, to really hands-on research. And I think from there, I just realized that I had an advantage,” said Robertson, who is constantly pushing younger students to improve their scientific skill set. “A big part of it is just getting their hands wet, throwing them into the research. Going through the scientific processes is what makes science so exciting; it’s developing hypotheses, then testing them. It’s going back through the data and finding limitations and then continuing to develop ideas. It’s a constantly iterative process.”
While science is often perceived as a solitary endeavor—the lone researcher in a lab—Robertson says that at Harvard Chan School, the greatest breakthroughs come from an inclusive approach. “As a graduate student you don’t want just one person that you can go to. You want a village of people that have different experiences.”
And that philosophy comes from the top down at the Sabri Ülker Center, because Hotamisligil makes sure students have an opportunity to speak publicly about their work and to learn from others.
“Gokhan’s lab is a great resource, not only because of the resources available, but because of the way that he really creates teams and camaraderie between colleagues here,” said Robertson “It’s a community of people that enjoy mentoring students and doing research studies that impact the world.”
Toward a TB vaccine
After graduating Robertson will be continuing her work on tuberculosis as a postdoc at MIT.
Her work will focus on developing translational vaccines to treat TB by trying to identify both the immune cells that are very effective at containing and killing the TB bacterium and those that are unable to do so.
Robertson says this is an important time to be working on the disease because there are renewed international efforts to not just address the disease from a scientific perspective, but to also look at the socioeconomic factors at play in low- and middle-income countries, where the disease is most prevalent.
“Lauren leaves us equipped with a powerful tool box to tackle big public health problems, it is not common to find young talent who can perform BL3 level infectious disease research together with a deep understanding of metabolism,” said Hotamisligil. “It is always a bitter-sweet moment to say good-bye to our most talented students but it is a privilege for us to work with such diverse body of exceptional young scientists at the Sabri Ülker Center and see their addition to the scholarly community to tackle the biggest threats to global human health.”
photo: Sarah Sholes