Bezawit Abi Woldemeskel

I did my research in the laboratory of Dr. Joel Blankson, where we study immune responses to viral infections. Part of my dissertation research involved characterizing T cell responses to endemic coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2 following natural infections and vaccinations. In early 2020, it was known in the field that some COVID-19 unexposed individuals had T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 despite never experiencing the virus. These preexisting immune responses might partially explain the divergent outcomes seen following COVID-19 infections. Work from our lab and others has shown that these preexisting T cell responses are partially a result of cross-reactive T cells that were primed by endemic human coronaviruses but can also recognize and respond to SARS-CoV-2. In my recent work, I show that COVID-19 mRNA [messenger RNA] vaccinations also enhance T cell responses to endemic coronaviruses. Additionally, I identified a conserved immunodominant epitope found in human and bat coronaviruses and demonstrate that vaccinated individuals are able to mount cross-reactive T cell responses to this epitope. Our work expands our understanding of cross-protective T cell epitopes and informs the development of vaccine strategies that, it is hoped, will elicit cross-protection across many coronaviruses.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work? Prior to graduate school, my research experience was in an industry setting where I worked on developing immune modulating therapeutics. When I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I wanted to join a program with a translational focus to bridge basic science discoveries to the clinic. I decided to attend the cellular and molecular medicine program – CMM – at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine because it offered a unique curriculum and included research faculty whose work aligned with my interests. Further, during my interview, I really enjoyed interacting with students in the program, and the Hopkins environment seemed super welcoming and collaborative. At the time, my sister was also pursuing her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, and having left home at 17 to attend college hundreds of miles away, it felt like the best opportunity to live close to family. Finally, I wanted to live in Baltimore because it offered a city life that was fun, affordable and enjoyable on a grad student stipend, with easy access to D.C. What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received? I first attended the Young Investigators’ Day celebration in 2019, and it was inspiring to see trainees being recognized for their exceptional work. I am honored to receive the Martin and Carol Macht Research Award and to be included in the list of students who have received this award. It is a recognition of an exciting journey of personal and professional growth, and the support of amazing friends and mentors along the way. What contributed to your project’s success? (Special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.) It has been such a pleasure to work with my mentor, Dr. Joel Blankson, who is a brilliant scientist and a caring mentor. My project’s success is a result of his exceptional guidance and feedback. Together, we were able to identify and effectively test hypotheses, and make meaningful contributions to a rapidly evolving, fast-paced field. In addition, invaluable feedback from my lab mate Caroline Garliss, my thesis committee members and collaborators, including Kellie Smith’s group in the cancer center and Arbor Dykema, was essential. What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Hopkins? Graduate students, postdocs and fellows are the backbone of academic research. As such, I think it is great that the Young Investigators’ Day celebrates the accomplishment of trainees and highlights their contributions to science. I hope this celebration continues in the years to come. What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Hopkins? It is difficult to pick a single experience, but my most memorable experiences all involve spending time with classmates, friends and lab mates over coffee or drinks. One of the most impactful and rewarding experiences I had at Johns Hopkins was when I was working on the executive board of the Biomedical Scholars Association to increase support for students from diverse backgrounds. Another memorable experience was watching my undergraduate student rapidly progress though her scientific journey, which she demonstrated during a journal club and ultimately by winning a poster award at a national conference. What are your plans over the next year or so? Graduating, looking for faculty positions, etc.? I am graduating and leaving Baltimore in May. I am excited to spend the summer traveling and spending time with friends and family. Ultimately, I plan to pursue a career in the startup/biotech space, and I am excited for my next career steps toward that goal. Tell me something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences? My sister, Selam Woldemeskel, received her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins and won a Young Investigators’ Day award in 2019. So, I am now the official copycat of my family. We were born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and it feels so surreal that we had the opportunity to pursue our education in the U.S., at world renowned institutions. It’s not something my sisters and I envisioned growing up and I am grateful that we were so lucky, and I feel proud of how much we have accomplished. I love dancing and am always looking for great dance spots!