Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Ashlee Bell-Cohn, Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences

Ashlee Bell-Cohn

Ashlee Bell-Cohn, a sixth-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program (DGP), studies translational immunology in the laboratory of Praveen Thumbikat, PhD, O’Connor Family Research Professor of Urology and associate professor in the Departments of Urology and Pathology

 Bell-Cohn earned her undergraduate degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry, from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. After earning her PhD, she would like to pursue a career in industry science and see her research translate into work that benefits patients.

I usually consider Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to be my hometown, but I’ve called several places home in my life. I was born in the suburbs of Chicago, Melrose Park specifically. I lived in Hoffman Estates until I was six. My mother worked for Sears and got a string of promotions that required us to move around the southern United States for a bit. I have lived in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Arkansas. 

What are your research interests?

I am interested in immunology. I think it’s amazing that we, as people, have this intricate, highly regulated, balancing act of cells and proteins that allows us to survive in this world. I put a lot of emphasis on balance because for how great and necessary our immune systems are, they can also cause a lot of pain and/or grief. The human immune system is the epitome of a tool. Depending on how or what is controlling it, it can be truly destructive or wonderfully beneficial. I want to help maintain and restore that balance in people with diseases. I think one of the best ways to fix or stop some diseases is to understand what causes or leads to immune dysfunction or to find a way to bolster the immune system. That’s why dysregulated immune function, like autoimmunity or hypersensitivity, interests me most.

What exciting projects are you working on?

In my lab, I study how prostate immunology contributes to the development of lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) in men. LUTS is typically co-diagnosed and associated with benign prostate hyperplasia. These symptoms are highly prevalent in older men age 50 plus, but can also occur in younger men. Patients tend to struggle with voiding urine, feeling the need to urinate often and ejaculating. Specifically, my project is trying to understand how a particular clinical bacterial isolate leads to the development of a type 2 immune response. Then how that type 2 immune response leads to the development of fibrosis and subsequent LUTS.

What attracted you to the PhD program?

I love that DGP is so interdisciplinary. I consider myself an immunologist, but I have had to become acquainted with microbiology, surgery, histology and microscopy for my project. I remember back when I was applying to PhD programs, I always thought it was weird that I had to choose a particular department or discipline. It was intimidating, like I was choosing the rest of my life with that application. Science is a dynamic field, and it’s really hard to make meaningful impacts in the field if you don’t look outside your particular discipline. When I came across DGP, it was breath of fresh air. I could explore topics and labs in my first year and really get a feel for what I wanted to study. The fact that DGP is in downtown Chicago didn’t impede the program’s attractiveness.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

The people in my lab are amazing and a very socially active group. One year I proposed we do one of those escape rooms together. Escape rooms are rooms in which you and a group of other people are locked in and you need to figure out how to get out; essentially it’s a big puzzle. The particular one we did was zombie-themed and trust me, you haven’t lived until you get see your principal investigator jumping out of the way of a fake zombie trying to attack him. That is hands down one of the best experiences I’ve had here.

What are your plans for after graduation?

Industry science! I will apply for industrial postdoctoral positions after graduation. I still like science and bench work, but I want to be in an environment where I can potentially see my research benefiting the world. I think industry science offers more of the translational focus that I want. Hopefully in industry, I’ll get a chance to explore more of the immunology field, like autoimmunity or allergy. Also being a member of and president of a couple of student groups, I’ve come to find that I like leading people. Maybe I’ll look to further my leadership ambitions in industry as well.