In autoimmune diseases such as colitis, excess inflammation occurs in the gut and causes patients to have symptoms such as abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, and diarrhea. Jennifer Heller, a fifth-year PhD candidate, uses animal models of colitis to better understand how the adaptive immune system becomes dysregulated.
“I am working to identify a new target for therapeutics in autoimmune disease,” Heller said. “Ideally, we would find a molecular component of the inflammation pathway that could be targeted for more precise treatment instead of the common drugs that stop inflammation in the whole body and have a lot of side effects.”
While her research investigates colitis, it is translatable to other areas of immunology, such as psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
“This area of research is really hot right now in immunology,” Heller said. “It is an exciting time to be working on projects like this, and there has been a lot of progress in the last few years that is pushing the forefront of scientific research.”
Heller knew she wanted to study immunology when she started in the Walter S. and Lucienne Driskill Graduate Training Program in Life Sciences (DGP). After spending the first year of the program taking courses and rotating in labs, she chose to do her thesis in the lab of Liang Zhou, MD, PhD, assistant professor in pathology and microbiology-immunology, who joined the University in 2009.
“Joining a new faculty member’s lab who is working in an exciting area of science was something I found very appealing,” Heller said. “As a joint lab between pathology and microbiology-immunology, there are a lot of resources available as well as a lot of potential collaborations that I could take advantage of inside and outside of the University.”
Even though Heller knew what she wanted to study before beginning the program, she enjoyed the rotation process because it exposed her to different areas of science and expanded her network at the University.
“I think it is a really good system even if you know where you want to end up going,” she said, “I knew I ultimately wanted to go into immunology research, but it still exposes you to other techniques and other labs that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.”
Before starting the program, Heller completed dual bachelor’s degrees in ecology and evolutionary biology and Spanish from the University of Arizona. She then worked at Novartis Pharmaceuticals.
Heller says that she thinks coming from an untraditional background made her a stronger scientist and led her to take advantage of the opportunities available at Northwestern.