ASM Career Development Grant for Postdoctoral Women Recipient Plans to Learn Eicosanoid Mass Spectrometry

Dec. 4, 2019

Dr. Chrissy Leopold Wager is currently a postdoctoral scientist in the laboratory of Dr. Larry S. Schlesinger at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute. Her research focuses on understanding the interactions between Mycobacterium tuberculosis and human macrophages. In 2019, she received the ASM Career Development Grant for Postdoctoral Women (CDGPW) and will use her funds to learn a new technique, mass spectrometry, to advance her research.

Why did you apply for the CDGPW and how will you use the funds?

For my research, I use the human monocyte-derived macrophage (MDM) model to study how Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb) co-opts macrophage signaling pathways to create an environment optimal for bacterial growth. Specifically, I am investigating the role of host eicosanoids, lipid signaling molecules, on human macrophage responses to M.tb. Eicosanoids regulate inflammation and have distinct roles during M.tb infection that significantly influence protection against, or susceptibility to, tuberculosis (TB). Eicosanoids are relatively short-lived molecules, and I needed a method to measure them.

The most sensitive way to measure eicosanoids is by mass spectrometry. Vanderbilt University has an Eicosanoid Core Facility dedicated to the detection and quantification of these lipid mediators that is led by Dr. Ginger Milne. Milne has graciously offered me the opportunity to come to Vanderbilt University and train with her on this advanced technique of eicosanoid measurement. I am very grateful to have been awarded the ASM Career Development Grant for Postdoctoral Women to facilitate my travel to learn this skill. By studying these inflammatory and metabolic networks in human primary macrophages, we hope to discover new host-derived therapeutic targets for lung infections, with potential applications beyond TB.

What kinds of training do you need to work with Mycobacterium tuberculosis in the lab? 

Working with M.tb requires training in biosafety level 3 (BSL3) protocols and procedures. We undergo annual training to ensure everyone is following the approved protocols. We work in a high containment laboratory specifically designed to keep the bacteria confined to the laboratory space. All work is performed in a biosafety cabinet (BSC) to provide an extra layer of protection. The garb we wear is more stringent than in a BSL2 laboratory. We must wear a gown, head cover, shoe covers, 2 sets of gloves, eye protection and a respirator or powered air purifying respirator. 

The first thing we all learn when moving from a BSL2 lab to a BSL3 lab is that everything takes longer in the BSL3! For example, if you have samples to centrifuge, you bring the sealed rotor into the BSC, load the samples and reseal the rotor, then decontaminate the rotor and bring it out of the BSC and back to the centrifuge rather than simply carrying the tubes to the centrifuge. These extra steps add up when you are doing multiple spins. In addition, all samples must be decontaminated before you can bring them out of the BSL3 lab for downstream analysis like ELISAs or Western blots. Working in the BSL3 is definitely a challenge. However, since tuberculosis is a continuing global threat and multi-drug resistant M.tb is on the rise, the work we do to help combat this deadly disease is critical. 

Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a non-profit research institute, can you tell us how working there compares to academia?

Postdoctoral research at a non-profit like Texas Biomed is very similar to academia in that we also have a talented pool of research faculty, staff scientists, postdocs and graduate students from local graduate programs. We have state-of-the-art facilities capable of performing cutting-edge techniques. Trainees are also encouraged to attend conferences, submit internal and external grant applications and participate in career development activities. 

Our difference relates more to our smaller size. At Texas Biomed, all of the scientists know each other, which makes collaboration much easier. One of the greatest benefits is that trainee-level scientists have easy access to members of our leadership, including President and C.E.O. Dr. Larry Schlesinger and our Vice President for Research, Dr. Joanne Turner. Schlesinger and Turner are deeply committed to advancing the career development of trainees on campus and are especially invested in the promotion of female scientists. They often are guests at career development events organized by the Texas Biomed Association for Trainees, where I serve as a member of the executive board. We are able to form real relationships with these mentors and learn from their successes and setbacks. These experiences are incredibly valuable to me during this critical time in my scientific training.  

Thanks for sharing your experiences. What advice do you have for female postdocs in research who are looking to advance in their career?

I think that one of the best ways we can advance our research careers is to learn from other women who have paved the way. It is important to seek out female mentors to help and guide us during these formative years of our careers. Your mentor can be someone who is wildly successful with numerous papers and grants, but can also be a peer who has a bit more experience than you and is great at listening and giving advice based on their experiences.  

As women, we face a unique set of challenges. I think one of the biggest is our propensity to try do everything and to say “yes” to most requests. As women, we want to be seen as capable and we feel like we need to do more to prove ourselves. This makes us say “yes” to serving on that committee, or to training the summer students or to taking on another project in the lab. Always saying “yes” can backfire. We then do not have enough time for our own research, grant applications or manuscript preparation. We no longer have time for personal commitments, let alone time to relax and decompress. It is critical that we allow ourselves downtime to recharge. Seeking out successful female mentors who can help us learn to set boundaries and to put our work and research first, while still being a team player, is critical to reaching our career goals.

Author: ASM Careers

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