Cassandra Simonich, an M.D./Ph.D. student conducting HIV-vaccine related research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, yesterday received the 2018 Graduate School Medal from the University of Washington.
The Medal, which comes with a $5,000 award, recognizes graduate students in two major arenas: academic contributions and social awareness. It was given to Simonich for both her landmark research in the pathways and development of HIV-combating antibodies and her unwavering commitment to providing accessible health care to underserved members of the greater Seattle community.
“It was incredibly humbling,” said Simonich, who works in the laboratory of Dr. Julie Overbaugh, which focuses on mechanisms of HIV-1 transmission and development.
Naturally occurring immune responses to HIV often take years to develop in adults, which is a significant roadblock to the development of an effective HIV vaccine. For this reason, Simonich explored the pathways and tempo of antibody responses against HIV in infants.
Previous research performed in the Overbaugh Lab found that HIV-infected infants are able to develop broad anti-HIV responses relatively quickly – within a year of their infection, as opposed to the years it takes most adults to develop a broad neutralizing antibody response. Simonich began her investigation by studying the antibodies of one infant, labeled BF520, who was infected approximately four months after birth.
As described in her 2016 paper, published in Cell, Simonich found that the broad neutralizing antibodies of infant BF520 showed far lower levels of mutation than adult antibodies, and that several different types of antibodies contributed to a polyclonal response, an immune process in which various lineages of antibodies work together to neutralize the virus.
These two findings suggested that the infant response to HIV could provide a template for how a vaccine could generate a response that would make it difficult for the virus to evade and escape a diverse combination of antibodies.
“I think it’s seen as a landmark study and I think what is really impressive for a graduate student is that it was a very high-risk, labor-intensive study,” said Overbaugh, who holds the Endowed Chair for Graduate Education at Fred Hutch.
Moving forward, Simonich and Overbaugh plan to investigate the broad neutralizing antibodies of other infants, hoping to learn if infant responses generally differ from those found in adults, and, if so, the basis for this unique aspect of infant immunity.
The Graduate School Medal was also given in recognition of Simonich’s involvement with RotaCare, a student-run clinic in North Seattle that provides basic health care needs for undocumented, homeless and uninsured populations.
In her five-year tenure with the nonprofit organization, Simonich helped to establish and expand its “diagnose-and-treat clinic,” serving as both clinic manager and student leader. Under her leadership, the clinic was able to set up a referral program for patients suffering from chronic conditions, allowing them to receive primary and specialty care on a more consistent basis from institutions such as UW Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center.
Simonich said she plans to donate some of the funds from her UW award to the RotaCare clinic, in hopes that it is used for medical supplies or for organizing a fundraiser.
Overbaugh emphasized that her protégé was not only a brilliant scientist but also a dedicated leader mentoring other students and taking the lead on projects.
A first-generation college graduate, Simonich attended the University of Montana before joining the University of Washington’s Medical Scientist Training Program. Reflecting on her path from “small-town kid” from rural Montana to published scientist, she emphasized that everyone, no matter what their background or education level, ought to make the most of any situation.
“Take opportunities as they come,” she said. “The path that I ultimately took was not planned – opportunities came my way because I was interested. The important thing is to do what you love and do what is fun. Take opportunities as they come, and you will get where you want to be.”
Science writing intern Colin Petersdorf is a junior at the University of Southern California, where he is majoring in biological sciences and minoring in screenwriting. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org