Meet Gwennaëlle Monnot, Postdoc in Skin Immunology

Meet Our Postdocs: Gwennaëlle Monnot, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Skin Immunology at the Department of Dermatology (Columbia University).

Gwennaëlle Monnot, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Skin Immunology

Which department are you in at Columbia and what is your position?

I am a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Dermatology.

Where are you from and how long have you been in NYC? 

I am from Switzerland and I have lived in New York for two and a half years.
Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.          

I started my studies in the Federal Polytechnical School of Lausanne (EPFL) where I obtained a bachelors in Life Sciences Engineering. During my last year, I had my first immunology class and I realized that was the subject I wanted to specialize in. At the time, I was also part of an on-campus association which was promoting volunteering for NGOs amongst EPFL students, and I became interested in global health and infectious diseases. I hence decided to apply to the Immunology MSc. program of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There, I obtained my MSc., and had the opportunity to spend 2 months in Burkina Faso analyzing blood samples from children infected with malaria and measuring their antibody levels. This research experience convinced me further I wanted to be a scientist and study immunology. I was still fascinated by the bio-engineering side of immunology, so I joined the laboratory of Pedro Romero, at the University of Lausanne. There, I studied the genetic modification of CD8+ T cells to increase their potency as tumor-destroying cells, in the context of adaptive cell transfer therapy. I was mostly working on melanoma cancer models, which gave me a new interest in the skin. What a complex and fascinating organ! I also decided that, in order to complete my training as an immunologist, I wanted to study the opposite phenomenon of cancer – autoimmunity. Which brought me here, at Columbia University, studying skin autoimmune diseases in the Dermatology Department.

What research question are you trying to figure out right now?

When I started I was split between two labs. Part of my research focused on the autoimmune disease Alopecia Areata (AA), in which patients lose part or the totality of their hair. My other subject of study was, and still is, lipid-specific T cells. It has recently been discovered that T cells can bind to a receptor called “CD1a” and mount an immune response against lipids. Since CD1a is widely expressed in skin dendritic cells, we are studying the role of these cells in the skin. Hence my three main research questions have been:

1. What are the T cell receptors driving hairloss in a mouse model for AA?

2. Can a tolerogenic DNA vaccine approach be used to prevent or reverse AA?

3. What is the role of CD1a-restricted T cells in human skin inflammation and homeostasis?

In a nutshell, what tools or approaches are you using to try and figure this out?

My time here has allowed me to keep practicing the skills I had acquired during my PhD (mouse model of diseases, primary human and mouse cell culture, multicolour flow cytometry, cloning and retroviral plasmid generation) and to acquire new knowledge (single cell RNA and TCR sequencing, lipid immunology, mouse and human skin processing and extraction of immune cells).

What is the best part of your job?            

The best part of the job is the freedom to figure out research questions.
Why do you love science?

Science allows us to understand the world around us better, to solve practical problems we encounter as humans. And of course, to live the longest healthiest lives possible.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in science?

The most important qualities, in my opinion, are curiosity and perseverance. One needs to be curious to find out the answer to a research question, otherwise the day-to-day frustration and experimental hurdles will not seem worth it.

Tell us a bit about yourself or your projects that are not related to science.           

Besides being a scientist, I am a rock climber and amateur musician. I just started learning to play bass. I also love reading, both fiction and non-fiction, and discussing science with a broad audience. Which is why I joined CUPS.

What is your favorite thing about NYC?

The multitude of things to do or see. One can never run out of activities to do here. Also, for any interest, there will be a community of people out there, ready to welcome you and share their passion with you. I have experienced that with climbing, but I know it is true for almost anything!

When did you join CUPS and what is your current role, if any?        

I joined 6 months ago the Outreach and Communication committee. I don’t have a specific role but I have been helping out with organizing events, such as for example the most recent Trivia Night we recently organized with the group.

What do you like the most about CUPS? 

I like that CUPS is allowing a sense of community amongst Columbia Postdocs. Depending on the lab that one works in, being a postdoc can be a pretty isolating experience. By organizing various events, CUPS not only helps us hone our skills, and prepares us to various careers in science, but most importantly allows us to connect with one another and support each other through our day to day research.

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