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3i Symposium Inspires Interdisciplinary Insights in Immunology, Inflammation, and Infection

Sophia Friesen

Title image: Kaleidoscopic Capsids by Erin Cafferty.

COVID-19 made it clearer than ever that infectious diseases and immunity are problems that require research at every scale: from the interactions between molecules in the immune system to the human behaviors that change how infections spread globally. Every level was represented at the 2024 Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease (3i) Symposium, where over 150 researchers from across the University of Utah gathered to form new connections and share groundbreaking research.
The 3i Initiative at U of U Health has been tackling big issues in infection and immunity since 2017. Since then, its collaborations have only strengthened, said Ryan O’Connell, PhD, co-director of the initiative. “It’s great that we’ve had the sustainability to keep us going,” O’Connell said, “and I’m excited to see the community that’s grown up in 3i over the years.” As the research talks began, the most infectious thing was the enthusiasm.

Crowd of seated researchers watching a presenter at the front of a large conference space.
Image credit: Nicole Frank, PhD.

Deciphering Antibiotic Resistance

As antibiotic resistance becomes more prevalent, predicting and understanding it becomes an increasingly urgent dilemma. That’s why Jennifer Weidhass, PhD, associate professor in civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, is sampling wastewater from Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital for antibiotic resistance genes, trying to detect problematic bacteria as early as possible. Meanwhile, Allison Carey, MD, PhD, assistant professor of clinical pathology at the U, is is working with ARUP to study bacteria related to tuberculosis, which can reveal insights into how antibiotic resistance develops in dangerous non-tuberculosis bacteria as well as in tuberculosis itself.

Uncovering the Mysteries of the Immune System

Many scientists were investigating how the immune system reacts to threats ranging from viruses to cancer to previously healthy tissue. Diet-related changes to the microbiome could be one trigger for an autoimmune disease that affects the throat, according to research by Amiko Uchida, MD, gastroenterologist at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine. Melissa Reeves, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the U, found that the immune system reacts very differently—and very locally—to skin cancer cells with different genetics. And Owen Pornillos, PhD, professor of biochemistry at the U, has discovered how a specific human protein can mount a “double whammy” immune response against HIV.

New Tools in the Toolbox

Other researchers shared cutting-edge technologies they’re developing to tackle complex problems in immunity and infectious disease, often explicitly putting out a call for collaborators. Kendell Clement, PhD, assistant professor in biomedical informatics at the U, has designed better pipelines to help researchers understand and interpret genome editing experiments, which he’s using to figure out how different genetic changes contribute to lymphoma. Aaron Puri, PhD, assistant professor in chemistry in the College of Science, is figuring out new biochemical labeling methods to understand how microbes communicate with each other. And Alphonsus Ng, PhD, assistant professor in biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering, is designing portable technologies to measure features of the immune system—like antibodies against measles or biomarkers for cancer—given a simple blood test.

Unexpected Connections

A crucial feature of the symposium was the connections it made, both between scientific collaborators and unexpected disciplines. This positive, interdisciplinary spirit was exemplified by an exhibition of science-related art produced by symposium attendees, demonstrating that scientific inquiry and creativity go hand in hand. Ever since the 3i art show was started by two grad students at the U, the symposium has kept the connection between art and science going strong for four years running.

Detailed full-color illustration of a person with dark skin wearing lab gloves and a white coat, using knitting needles to "weave" DNA into helices and chromosomes.
The Molecular Weaver, by Annabel Anyang. 1st place in Art as Science category at the symposium.
Black-and-white microscope image of a delicate, intricate spiral structure.
10X Cochlear Spiral with Neurons, by Shubham Kale. 1st place in Science as Art category at the symposium.

At the poster session following most of the talks, early-career researchers took center stage in sharing projects-in-progress while making valuable scientific and professional connections. “I’ve been going to this symposium every year since the first year,” said Jacklyn Nguyen, a fourth-year graduate student in neurobiology who was presenting her research on infection-induced pain. “Everybody’s doing different stuff. This is where I go to learn about science and share science.”
Daniel Leung, PhD, co-director of 3i, also emphasized the symposium’s value in promoting new scientific connections. “This event gives investigators from our community the opportunity to hear about scientific discoveries at the U that are occurring outside of their own disciplines, which we hope will lead to new cross-departmental collaborations and sharing of ideas,” Leung said.
Jacob Sussman, an undergraduate researcher in epidemiology who was presenting a poster on the demographics of tuberculosis infection, was excited to learn what others were working on in similar fields, although the diversity of research presented was a major strength, he said. “These questions are so interdisciplinary… What’s cool is how it all connects.”

Scientists mingle and converse in a brightly-lit open poster forum.
Image credit: Nicole Frank, PhD.