Dr. Helen Dooley joined the IMET team in November 2016 and studies the evolution of the immune system. Much of her work focuses on understanding the immune responses of sharks, and their close cousins the skates, rays, and chimera.
How did you get interested in sharks?
It’s quite a crazy story really. For my Ph.D. project I was supposed to be studying immune responses in camels. When I started our partner on the project took blood samples from a couple of his camel herd out in Brunei and then immunized them for me. I did all the preliminary work but when the time came for us to take another blood sample, so I could test how the immunized camels had responded, they were nowhere to be found - someone had stolen my camels! So, I was a year into my PhD and I didn’t have the samples I needed to finish my project. Luckily, as I was trying to figure out what on earth I was going to do I came across a great scientific report about the immune system of sharks and immediately thought, "this is what I want to do." While I don’t usually condone stealing, working on sharks is way cooler than working on camels so I guess I owe those camel thieves a big thank you!
What are you studying and why is it important?
We want to understand when the different components of the immune system emerged and how they became integrated into the very complex protective network we find in humans. Sharks are the most ancient animals to have a "human-like" immune system so they provide a good starting point to understand the origins of the system. The analogy I like to use are the Harry Potter books - if we focus all our efforts on studying the immune system in humans it’s much like reading book 7 alone; you know the final outcome of the story but don’t appreciate how each character has developed and what forces drove them to that place. In our work we start at book one (i.e. with the sharks, skates and rays) and try to map the full story for each immune system component. We hope this information will help us better understand the human immune system and why it goes wrong, for example in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
What made you decide to come to IMET?
The nature of our work means we need to immunize our sharks (just like getting a flu shot) then take a series of small blood samples which we use to map their immune responses over time. There aren’t many places in the world that have the space and expertise to maintain a colony of sharks but the aquarium facilities and support team here at IMET are amazing! The breadth of work being conducted at IMET also means there are also lots of opportunities to collaborate on exciting and diverse projects. Honestly, it was a pretty easy decision to move back to Baltimore and join IMET.