The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute has a robust training program for researchers at multiple levels, including CHOP-based graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and physician fellows. During CHOP Research’s Poster Day event, taking place on February 25, 2015, the Institute took time to recognize notable advanced research trainees without whom the groundbreaking medical research conducted every day at CHOP would be impossible.

The 2015 Distinguished Research Trainee Awards, chosen by the Research Trainee Advisory Committee, went to graduate student Drew Comrie, PhD; physician fellow Elizabeth Bhoj, MD; and postdoctoral fellows Dong Li, PhD, and Daniela Eletto, PhD, who tied for the honor. The winners’ expertise — in immunology, genetics, and molecular biology — spans the research spectrum.

The CHOP Distinguished Research Trainee Awards provide institution-wide recognition for exceptional CHOP Research trainees, and offer an opportunity for mentors to highlight the work of their researchers-in-training. Each awardee is recognized with an award certificate and awarded a prize.

T Cell Mechanics

After receiving his BS in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of Rochester, Drew Comrie, PhD, went on to receive his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2014. From 2009 until his graduation from Penn, Dr. Comrie worked in the laboratory of Janis K. Burkhardt, PhD.

“Drew is one of the most talented and intellectually independent students I have ever had in my lab, and one of the very best that I have encountered in any lab at CHOP, Penn, or the University of Chicago,” said Dr. Burkhardt.

Dr. Comrie is the first author of two recent Journal of Cell Biology papers (published back-to-back) — both of which Dr. Burkhardt led — on the mechanics of T cell activity. The work, which “reveal[s] that the actin cytoskeleton on both sides of the [immunological synapse] promotes the full activation of LFA-1 in order to enhance T cell priming,” was recently profiled in a Journal of Cell Biology “In Focus” article. In addition, Dr. Comrie’s research was integral to an R01 Dr. Burkhardt received from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Since receiving his doctorate, Dr. Comrie has gone on to a postdoctoral position in the lab of Michael J. Lenardo, MD, in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease’s Laboratory of Immunology.

“I am excited that he will take his talent for basic science and apply it to understanding rare and devastating immunological diseases,” noted Dr. Burkhardt. “This is just the sort of scientist that CHOP is poised to train.”

From to Immunology to Genetics

Elizabeth Bhoj, MD, PhD, first came to CHOP for a combined Pediatrics/Genetics Residency in 2010 after receiving her MD/PhD from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. She is now in her first year of the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Science in Translational Research program, and received the Alavi-Dabiri Postdoctoral Fellowship Award from CHOP in 2014.

For his part, Dong Li, PhD, received his doctorate from Chongqing, China’s Southwest University’s Institute of Sericulture and Systems Biology in 2012, and came to CHOP in 2011 after working for BGI-Shenzhen. CHOP and BGI have collaborated on a number of projects, including working together to analyze brain tumors and launching the 1,000 Rare Diseases Project. Both Drs. Bhoj and Li were mentored by Hakon Hakonarson, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Applied Genomics (CAG). Dr. Bhoj’s work has been focused on identifying genes associated with craniofacial development, while Dr. Li has, in part, acted as a project manager for several collaborative CAG projects, helping to identify multiple new disease-causing genetic variants. Dr. Bhoj, said Dr. Hakonarson, “stands out in my mind as outstanding in her potential for and commitment to a highly successful academic research career. I am certain that in the years to come she will continue to accelerate her trajectory of scientific success in advancing the understanding and treatment of genetic disease.” And Dr. Li, Dr. Hakonarson noted, “was a top-tier postdoc in terms of his research skills, learning capacity, solution finding, and efficiency, and he is extremely hard working and dedicated to his projects.”

“It is exciting to learn about the underlying genetic/molecular mechanisms of diseases and the implications of these insights for human physiology,” said Dr. Li. “So thanks to CHOP, and especially Dr. Hakonarson, for the continuous support and all the time he put into my research. I’m very grateful and honored to be recognized.”

Exploring the Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress Response

And last but certainly not least there is Daniela Eletto, PhD. Originally from Italy, Dr. Eletto received both her PharmD and PhD from the University of Salerno, and first came to CHOP in 2010 while still working toward her doctorate. Since 2012 she has been a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Yair Argon, PhD, who called Dr. Eletto “very insightful, motivated, and a fast learner.”

“Since joining the lab as a postdoc, these traits have been more evident, but I have also been impressed by Daniela’s desire to engage in intellectually challenging problems,” Dr. Argon added.

Much of Dr. Eletto’s work has been centered on better understanding the molecular underpinnings of cell death. In particular, she has been working with Dr. Argon on research on the endoplasmic reticulum’s stress response, and last year Dr. Eletto was the first author of a Molecular Cell paper that shed light on how cells deal with stress.

When stress is placed on the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), cells’ ability to synthesize, fold, and mature proteins can be impaired. ER stress has been associated with a range of conditions, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), cancer, and heart disease. Cells’ response to ER stress is the unfolded protein response (UPR), in which sensors are activated in an attempt to return the cell to homeostasis or, failing that, to induce apoptosis. In the Molecular Cell study, the study team learned new things about how UPR sensors are regulated.

“As Daniela continues to develop and mature as a scientist, she has made a nice transition from focusing on ‘how to’ conduct experiments to ‘which’ experimental approaches are best suited for the problem at hand,” added Dr. Argon.