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BIOLOGY PROFESSOR’S IMMUNOLOGY LAB EXPOSES STUDENTS TO GRADUATE-LEVEL RESEARCH IN UNDERGRADUATE SETTING

When Associate Professor of Biology Jenni Punt presented her research on “T-cell tolerance” to the Philadelphia Haverford Alumni Network (PHAN) Nov. 5, she turned the reins over to her assistants, who elaborated on their hypotheses, experiments, and results, as well as the “real-world” ramifications of their projects.

At a large university, Punt’s research assistants may have been Ph.D. candidates or post-doctoral fellows. Here at Haverford, she’s aided by five undergraduate students—seniors Scott Gordon, Dan Grant, Lucy Hu (BMC), Jessica McDonald, and Nathan Singh—who are conducting scientific research at a graduate level. It’s an opportunity that will have long-lasting positive repercussions for each of their futures.

“This does more than prepare them for research careers,” says Punt, who last year received a Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Teaching from the American Association of Immunologists. “It gives them a sense of the dynamic nature of knowledge. They’ll bring a scholarly skepticism to everything they do, in whatever careers they may have.”

Punt’s students are involved in her ongoing explorations of what she calls the “molecular reasoning” behind the decisions made by developing T-cells. These cells are designed to defend our bodies against pathogens, and each is unique because of its receptor, which allows it to engage, bind, and attack foreign materials. But T-cells also sense proteins in the body, including the ones that are essential to our makeup, and some wayward cells misidentify these proteins as dangerous and attack them as they would any pathogen.

However, these cells can be screened and destroyed. Young T-cells are sent to a “nursery” called a thymus, located above the heart. “The thymus is like a ‘mini-me’ of yourself,” explains Punt. “It’s a protective environment that allows the developing cells to browse a representation of your body.” Ninety-five percent of these cells are killed before they can be released into the body; those that do “graduate” from the thymus will identify and destroy only pathogens—hopefully.

“The thymus is not perfect,” says Punt. “Not all the cells released are ready.”

The crux of her research is the paradox of why young cells (called thymocytes) interpret a strong foreign substance as a signal to die, while more mature cells read the same substance as a sign to divide. Her projects are funded by a variety of sources, including the National Institutes of Health, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Science Foundation. “Students’ ideas have often contributed to the development of my grant proposals,” she says.

Punt’s students aren’t merely participants in her research; they are also encouraged to originate their own projects. Nathan Singh spent one summer working in an immunology and cancer studies lab at the University of Pittsburgh and was hit by a “bolt of inspiration” that developed into his senior project. “It involves studying the signals that guide T-cells through the thymus during development,” he says, “and whether or not these signals play a role in cell survival and death.”

What he loves most about his research is getting “good data.” “In our lab some of the things we do are really cutting-edge, so seeing great data is exciting because you get the feeling that no one has ever seen this information before.”

Jessica McDonald, who teams up with Dan Grant to examine a specific protein (PP2A) in the process of developing tolerant T-cells, likes the blend of independence and collaboration in Punt’s lab. “I also enjoy the fact that we’re actually doing real science,” she says. “Since we’re undergrads putting in less than 20 hours a week, it’s not like I expect to make a big discovery, but at the same time I can plan and conduct my experiments largely on my own, and also get input from other members of the lab.”

Scott Gordon, who concentrates on both a protein called Nur77 and a subset of T cells known as T regulatory cells, appreciates the impact his and other students’ experiments may have on pressing health issues. “Immunology is such a fascinating and intricate field, involved in combating so many devastating diseases and conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, type-1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus,” he says. “I feel that any one of us, at any point, could discover something earth-shattering.”

In addition to its pragmatic possibilities, Dan Grant also sees the philosophical and political importance of cell signaling and immunology research. At the PHAN presentation in November he expanded on what he calls the “sheer, elegant complexity of the natural systems that surround and sustain us,” and how human achievements often pale in comparison. “Bacteria, insects, ecosystems—these are all things we take for granted,” he says, “but each is representative of an organized system that is far more capable and efficient than even the most sophisticated machine ever created by man.” He also stresses the need for legislation supporting scientific research, noting that the U.S. has fallen behind many other countries in such pursuits. “Our tendency to ban certain types of research (such as stem-cell) only has the effect of handicapping our progress.”

Many alumni of Punt’s lab have progressed to prestigious graduate, medical, and veterinary programs at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, MIT, and the University of California at Berkeley. Her current students hope that their experience will afford them similar options. Dan Grant’s immediate plans call for time in a research lab at the University of Pennsylvania, while his long-range sights are set on a career in science and health policy. “The experience I’ve had in the Punt lab will be a great asset because it has provided me with a strong scientific foundation,” he says, “and allowed me to see how much I enjoy the hands-on world of laboratory research.”

Punt is always happy to see her students meet with post-Haverford success, but their farewells are bittersweet. “When students leave it’s tragic,” she says, “because they take with them intangible skills. They’re not just people working in a lab; they’re leaving an incredible legacy.”

For their part, Punt’s young researchers see her as much more than a teacher and supervisor. “Working with Jenni has been a blessing,” says Nathan Singh. “She had been an amazing mentor and has become a great friend.”

— Brenna McBride

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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