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Neonatal Pathogens and the Microbiome: Q&A With Diversity Fellow Haider Manzer, PhD

Published on November 1, 2023 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 6 months 2 weeks ago
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Q&A With Diversity Fellow Haider Manzer, PhD
Diversity Fellow Haider Manzer, PhD

Editor’s Note: 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 four new scholars in the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity program at CHOP.

Applications for the next group of Diversity Fellows are due Jan. 30, 2024! Visit the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity page for complete eligibility requirements and application procedures. Submit your application via REDCap.

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 first featured Diversity Fellow is Haider Manzer, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Joseph Zackular, PhD. Dr. Manzer researches how pathogens in early life affect development of the microbiome.

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

I was raised by Pakistani immigrants who always stressed the importance of education. During my undergraduate education at the University of South Florida, I had various opportunities that shaped my goals and my career trajectory. I worked closely with physicians and researchers at the interface of infectious disease and neonatology. This led to my passion for understanding the mechanisms by which various pathogens infect newborns, so that we can develop novel therapeutics to prevent disease.

While working toward my doctoral degree, I became a co-director of an after-school science education program called Think Like a Scientist (TLaS). TLaS aimed to fill a gap in local elementary school education and almost entirely served students from underprivileged and diverse backgrounds. My dedication to a career that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion in science was solidified when a fifth-grade girl in this program told me, “I didn’t think someone like me could be a scientist, but now I want to be one!”

Finding a mentor and institution that similarly valued community outreach and diversity in science was important to me, which is why I applied for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity. I study the impact of pathogens in early life on the developing microbiome and immune system.

I am confident that Dr. Zackular’s mentorship and the resources provided by this fellowship will assist me in my goal of obtaining a tenure-track faculty position in microbial pathogenesis. I am also thrilled to be working as part of a group that is dedicated to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in science.

What does diversity in research and science mean to you?

Diversity in research and science is essential for meaningful progress. Research and science are about pushing the boundaries of what is known, and I think the most dramatic discoveries happen when people with different backgrounds share ideas. 

Diversity in science, of course, includes the implementation of interdisciplinary approaches to complex problems, but it also includes racial, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity. People from underprivileged and underrepresented backgrounds bring new and varied solutions to long-standing problems, and the inclusion of these marginalized individuals within the scientific community helps to identify problems that have long been overlooked or ignored.

Diversity in research and science is also important to me as an individual, since I know firsthand how hard it is to come from an underprivileged background and succeed in science. Programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in research and science not only improve the quality and rate of progress, but also change people’s lives.

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

One of the pathogens that the Zackular Lab studies is Clostridioides difficile, which is the most commonly acquired hospital pathogen. Interestingly, C. difficile has a spectrum of disease: Older patients suffer from the severe and often fatal disease, whereas infants colonized by C. difficile at similar levels typically show no signs of disease.

I am interested in pathogen-driven remodeling of the microbiome and host systems and hope to gain new insights into these processes. I’m currently working on a project investigating how early-life colonization by C. difficile might shape development of both the microbiome and immune system, and whether there are functional impacts of this later in life.

A related project I’d like to address during this postdoctoral fellowship is how early-life C. difficile-induced host remodeling can be utilized by other neonatal pathogens to enhance their ability to cause disease.

What inspired you to choose your research focus, and what do you aim to achieve with your research?

My first exposure to biomedical research was shadowing an infectious disease physician early in my undergraduate education. During that experience, the lack of effective therapeutics to treat multidrug resistant pathogens that could result in patient death was an unfortunate common theme. The realization that so many lives could be saved if only we had the proper tools formed the foundation of my research and career goals.

During my doctoral studies, I gained the skills needed to mechanistically characterize bacterial factors contributing to pathogenesis and learned that additional members of the microbiome and host factors are often just as important during infectious disease. Now, I aim to further investigate the effect that pathogens have on additional determinants of disease severity, including the microbiome and the immune system. 

I aim to combine these skillsets as a principal investigator with an independent research program focused on identifying mechanisms of pathogenesis and then developing novel targeted therapeutics to prevent infectious diseases, especially those affecting neonates.

What do you do for fun when you’re not working?

During graduate school in Colorado, I enjoyed drawing, snowboarding, and hiking through the Rocky Mountains with my wife. A few months before graduating, we welcomed our daughter into the world. Starting as a postdoctoral fellow with a newborn has been challenging, but spending time with my family when I am not working has been extremely fun and fulfilling. I look forward to hiking and snowboarding with my family in the Poconos in the near future.