My goal is to understand how the immune system targets so many different pathogens effectively – and why it sometimes fails to do so. These questions are especially interesting for ecologists and evolutionary biologists because the answers lie in evolution on two different timescales. Over hundreds of millions of years, vertebrates evolved many gene segments that are recombined to produce an almost infinite diversity of antigen receptors. Within weeks of infection in a single individual, B cells evolve under selection for mutations that improve pathogen recognition by those receptors, and this selection leads to potent antigen receptors later secreted as antibodies. Focusing on the adaptability of this short-term evolution, I have shown that different evolutionary processes lead to the loss of mutational hotspots in B cell receptor sequences, potentially compromising adaptation of the immune response to rapidly evolving pathogens such as HIV and influenza. In the long run, I want to understand how immune receptor genes evolved over hundreds of millions of years to facilitate their short-term adaptability in the course of an immune response, and how ecology and life-history shape selection for adaptability in the immune systems of different species.
I completed my PhD in Sarah’s lab before starting as a computational research scientist.