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11 Jan 2022

PhD Candidate Jennifer Habel awarded prestigious CEIRR Training Fellowship

University of Melbourne PhD Candidate Jennifer Habel, a member of the Kedzierska Laboratory at the Doherty Institute, has been awarded a prestigious Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response (CEIRR) Training Fellowship.

Jennifer has been awarded funding to study at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, USA to help better understand immune responses to respiratory viruses in pregnant women.

At St Jude Jennifer will perform in-depth single-cell transcriptomic analyses on antigen-specific maternal T and B cells to provide molecular insights into adaptive immune responses during pregnancy.

She will compare immune responses in a unique cohort of matched maternal blood, cord blood, and placenta from pregnant women who had COVID-19 during pregnancy along with healthy control samples from pregnant and non-pregnant women.

Jennifer joined the Kedzierska Lab at the Doherty Institute in 2019 for her Honours degree and started her PhD in March 2020.

“My interest in research began as a fascination with cytotoxic T cells, and more recently has expanded more broadly to various immune cells such as innate-like T cells and NK cells as these are important in pregnant women,” she said.

Jennifer said her PhD focuses on immune responses to respiratory viruses in pregnant women, as they are considered a high-risk group.

“In 2020 I published one of the first studies on CD8+ T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2, and have a study on immune responses to COVID-19 in pregnant women under consideration for publication,” she said.

Incredibly proud to have been awarded a CEIRR Training Fellowship, Jennifer says it will allow her to conduct cutting-edge research that focuses on antigen-specific immunity in pregnant women, as well as establish relationships with international collaborators.

“I applied for this grant to help broaden my research experience,” she said. “While we could do the proposed experiments in our Parkville research precinct, our collaborators at St Jude have invaluable experience with this technique that I hope to learn and help establish back in Melbourne.

“I was very excited and relieved when I heard my application was successful – it solidified our plans for important experiments to be done for my PhD and meant that I would be able to have the unique experience of travelling internationally to conduct research with our collaborators.”

Jennifer’s career plans include doing post-doctoral studies and continuing with academic research.

Medical science has long been a passion which she says started in high school in the US where she took an anatomy and physiology elective and this saw her later become a certified nursing assistant (CNA) before undertaking a more formal degree.

“I realised that face-to-face patient care wasn’t for me, which is when I decided to look into more research-focused options,” Jennifer said.

This led to a Bachelor of Biomedical Science at La Trobe University where she graduated in  2018.

“This is where I first started learning about immunology in-depth. While at La Trobe, I started volunteering in a research lab that focused on T cell immunology which largely confirmed my interest in doing research,” Jennifer said

“From there, I got in contact with Katherine to do my Honours year in her lab and have been a part of the lab ever since.”

Professor Katherine Kedzierska said it was incredibly exciting that Jennifer can perform some of her PhD experiments at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital as a part of the CEIRR Training Program.

“We are very grateful to the CEIRR network for funding Jennifer’s grant so she can learn cutting-edge technologies from international experts in the field and establish new collaborations overseas,” Katherine said.

“Jennifer is a truly amazing budding researcher, and I am sure that this international placement will immensely benefit Jennifer’s PhD studies as well as her future career.”

Read more about Jennifer Habel here