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Making Meaningful Connections: Q&A With Diversity Fellow Marisa Jeffries

Published on November 28, 2022 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 7 months ago


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Diversity Fellow Marisa Jeffries, PhD

Diversity and inclusion are critical drivers to our breakthroughs at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. Fostering a community of scientists from unique backgrounds and academic experiences enables collaboration to meet challenging pediatric problems from a variety of perspectives. In a Q&A series in the coming months, we're featuring five new scholars in thePostdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversityprogram at CHOP.

As a key part of CHOP's commitment to diversity, this fellowship funds talented researchers and educators from different backgrounds, races, ethnic groups, and other diverse populations.Join us to meet these fellows, learn more about their research interests, what diversity in science means to them, and how they enjoy spending their time outside of work. Our next featured Diversity Fellow is Marisa Jeffries, PhD, who is excited about her research that aims to better understand how HIV-1 infection may affect white matter development during adolescence.

Tell us about your background and what compelled you to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity?

I applied for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity for multiple reasons. First, CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania provide me with training and career development resources and opportunities that will undoubtedly be key for my eventual tenure-track career success. Second, my scientific passions are in the glial biology research field, and I want to continue to develop my research program while taking it in a new direction from my previous experiences.


Diversity Fellow Marisa Jeffries, PhD, studies how HIV-1 infection may affect white matter development during adolescence.

Currently, in Dr. Judith Grinspan's laboratory, in conjunction with Dr. Kelly Jordan-Sciutto at Penn, I am studying how oligodendroglia are affected in the context of HIV-1 and antiretroviral therapies, making their mentorship a perfect fit for my needs. I want to establish long-lasting, meaningful connections within a postdoctoral community that will richly contribute to my postdoctoral training experience, and this fellowship fosters just that.

What does diversity in research and science mean to you?

I strongly believe that learning from each other's diverse experiences enables us to value new and different perspectives and opinions. In the research setting, this improves our scientific approach by building on one another's unique strengths and approaching problems and questions from different angles. The biggest steps in science and technology have often been taken when people think outside the box of common opinion. To me, inclusive science that embraces what each person brings to the table as equally valuable and uniquely positioned drives more efficient, well-designed research that addresses critical questions of great impact for our community.

What do you like the most about the Research Institute regarding inclusivity?

I'm proud to be part of a community where diversity and inclusion matter and are actively pursued. In particular, the fact that the Research Institute so heavily emphasizes and pursues inclusion of persons of all backgrounds and experiences is distinctive and important. At the Research Institute, each individual person is valued for having unique perspectives and experiences, such that inclusion applies broadly to the community as a whole. I think this puts the responsibility of inclusion onto everyone who participates in our community, resulting in mutual and equitable respect.

What are some research projects that you're excited about?

I'm especially excited about my main research project that aims to better understand how HIV-1 infection may affect white matter development during adolescence. Studies have previously indicated that individuals living with HIV-1 exhibit white matter pathology even when undergoing antiretroviral therapies effective in controlling viral load. This is especially important to consider during adolescence when white matter in the brain continues to develop.

Unfortunately, the adolescent population accounts for a disproportionately high number of new HIV-1 cases annually, underscoring the critical need for research on how HIV-1 infection may affect white matter development and therefore brain function. I will be able to examine oligodendroglial and myelination dynamics during this critical window of brain development in an animal model. We're also actively examining how antiretroviral therapy use during adolescence affects white matter development, which will expand our understanding of whether these drugs actively contribute to white matter pathology.

By focusing on the understudied oligodendrocyte, the glial cell in the central nervous system that makes myelin in white matter, I am on the leading edge of a small but rapidly growing field approaching these neurological questions from a new perspective.

What inspired you to choose your research focus/specialty? And what do you aim to achieve with your research?

My first introduction to scientific research was when I attended a seminar series organized by the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis for high school students. The research topics were focused on improving the lives of those with spinal cord injuries, and I was fascinated by the gradual scientific steps taken toward eventually curing paralysis. Even though I started my undergraduate studies at University of Virginia with the goal of eventually applying for veterinary school, I never forgot just how interesting I'd found those seminars. When I was in my third year, I took a neuroscience course that irreversibly hooked me. The professor had a contagious passion for the subject that contributed strongly to my decision to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.

As a graduate student, I was intrigued by developmental and regenerative neuroscience and ended up discovering my passion in the glial biology field when I joined a lab at the University of Pittsburgh studying myelin regeneration in the context of multiple sclerosis. My eventual thesis work focused on the role of intracellular signaling pathways, ERK1/2 and mTOR, in regulating oligodendrocyte dynamics and myelination during adulthood and after demyelination. We were able to determine that these signaling pathways critically promote myelin production, healthy myelin maintenance, and efficient remyelination in the adult central nervous system.

Now, as a postdoctoral fellow, I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to continue studying oligodendrocytes, but in a totally new context for me of HIV-1 and neuroimmune pathology. To me, this is critically important work because while white matter pathology is routinely observed in individuals with HIV-1, particularly in those with neurocognitive dysfunction, no one has further explored these abnormal changes. If we can improve quality of life for those living with HIV-1 by improving neurological function, that is a huge step toward eradicating the negative impact of HIV-1.

When you're not working, do you have a favorite pastime or spot to relax, enjoy a meal, or be active?

Much of my time outside of work is spent with my family, enjoying quality time together as often as possible. We love going to parks for walks and playtime, visiting farmer's markets and other outdoor locations like the zoo, and spending time with extended family and friends. When I'm taking time for myself, I enjoy reading books, watching sci-fi TV and movies, and creating art. I can devour a book in a day, and I just got a drawing tablet that I am super excited to learn to use!