Hayley Muendlein, who received her Ph.D. in genetics last July from Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS), will always remember when her first article appeared in Science Magazine. It was the same day Tufts officially paused research projects due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though the day was bittersweet, Muendlein said she felt lucky and excited to see the work showcased in such a notable journal. It was actually the second paper on which she had been first-author, the first having been published in December 2020 in the journal Cell Reports.
The Science article discusses her research on cell death and inflammation as “interdependent host responses to infection.” She identified a novel regulator, or a previously undescribed function of a protein that regulates cell death.
“This work was significant translationally, as programmed cell death and inflammatory signaling must be carefully balanced and tightly regulated to ensure host survival,” Muendlein explained. “Defects in cell death machinery often lead to host mortality due to uncontrolled bacterial proliferation. However, when left unchecked, inflammatory signaling can result in ‘cytokine storm,’ a systemic inflammatory syndrome that has been seen recently in COVID-19 patients.”
During the pandemic lockdown, Muendlein said she had the opportunity write more. With fewer daily commitments in the immunology lab, she had the time to compile data from another just-completed project for a future paper.
She completed three main projects during her five years as a Tufts student, each focused on different aspects of cell death. Muendlein credits Alexander (Sasha) Poltorak, GSBS professor and interim chair of immunology, as the mentor who gave her freedom to explore, which allowed her to get more confident in the lab. “He was always there to give me structure and support and keep me on track. He is also unwaveringly excited about science, and it’s just contagious. Regardless of negative data or positive data, he is just overjoyed to hear from you,” she said.
Looking back at her time at Tufts, Muendlein said she has learned the importance of collaboration and learning from others—particularly as a newcomer to research and despite describing herself as shy and introverted. She said many of those peer-to-peer discussions had surprisingly positive impacts on how she shaped and developed her research—and for seeing the greater impacts project ideas could eventually have on science.
“When you first start—and when you don't feel like you know what you’re talking about—it’s hard to go up to someone and talk about your research. That risk is worth it a lot of times,” she said. “Eventually you do start to feel more confidence in your skills. My growth happened a lot because of those interactions.”
She has stayed on at Tufts in a postdoctoral position and said she has two more papers lined up for publication, likely within the next six months to a year. Muendlein plans to remain at GSBS for the foreseeable future, researching immune responses in the context of viral and bacterial infection.
Looking ahead, she’s considering staying in academia and applying for grants to run her own research lab one day. In a university setting, “I do appreciate the ability to go in any direction that you want to, to explore any phenotype that you want,” she said. “That’s why I stayed as a postdoc here at Tufts. It’s been just a really nice working environment.”
Profile written by Meredith Berg.
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