Where and what is your current position?
My current research project focuses on how to boost the immune response against cancer cells through the genetic engineering of an oncolytic herpes virus (o-HSV) retargeted to the cancer receptor HER-2. Specifically, I have engineered the o-HSV genome to add a gene encoding a single chain antibody that binds PD-L1. This o-HSV specifically enters and kills only cancer cells expressing HER-2. PD-L1 is a cell membrane protein expressed by tumor cells to suppress the cancer-specific immune response and escape immune-mediated tumor elimination. We hypothesize that the expression of an antibody that blocks the PD-1/PD-L1 axis could further boost the immune response against the tumor in cooperation with oncolysis, mediated by our cancer-specific o-HSV. We are currently testing this hypothesis both in vitro and in vivo experiments.
How does this job relate to your graduate degree?
During my time at UBC, I investigated the interactions between viral infections and the immune system. I am currently working on a very similar topic. At UBC, I learnt how to formulate hypotheses and develop appropriate experiments to address them. I acquired different experimental skills to work with in vitro and in vivo models. This knowledge gave me a very strong background that allowed me to continue on the path of basic research.
What motivated you to pursue graduate work at UBC?
I decided to come to UBC to pursue my graduate studies because of the excellent research groups that are part of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the Faculty of Science. Additionally, during my first visit, I was really impressed by the very modern laboratories and research facilities. Finally, I was also attracted by the possibility to apply to UBC scholarships to have good financial support during my PhD studies.
What are key things you did that contributed to your success?
When you are in graduate school, it is crucial to remain focused on your project to complete your dissertation in an appropriate amount of time. Another key aspect for a science PhD is the number of scientific articles that you are able to publish: the more, the better. Peer-reviewed publications are the most important paragraph of your CV or resumé, especially if you want to pursue an academic career. Finally, as I describe below, networking and presenting your work to the scientific community are very important as well.
What is your best piece of advice for current graduate students preparing for their future careers?
I think that the key word for success in science today is "networking.” I was able to secure good post-doc positions by attending national and international scientific conferences where I presented my work. Volunteering activities are also very important to make connections with other experts in different professional fields that could help you to build your future career. While in Vancouver, I was secretary and treasurer of the Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals in Western Canada. During this time, I had the opportunity to attend many events and meet a number of people that greatly helped me to shape my scientific career.