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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Abby Russi, Medical Scientist Training Program

Abby Russi

Abby Russi a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), studies mouse models of multiple sclerosis (MS) to determine how certain individuals’ immune systems predispose them to MS and orchestrate the autoimmune disease in the laboratory of Melissa Brown, PhD, professor of Microbiology – Immunology.

Russi says she always loved science, but wasn’t always set on making it her career path. It was the experience of losing her mother to MS that really drove her to pursue a career in medical research. Wanting to better understand the disease process and how to improve treatment options, she pursued an intensive program in biomedical research at The Ohio State University and then the MD/PhD program at Feinberg.

Where is your hometown?

While I was born in Virginia and lived in West Virginia for six years, I consider Worthington, Ohio my hometown. Worthington is a suburb of Columbus with a small-town feel. It’s not uncommon to run into friends at the local ice cream shop on a Friday summer night or to marry your high school sweetheart –which I did!

What are your research interests?

My research interests are in the field of neuroimmunology. Specifically, I study a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is an autoimmune disease where the body’s own immune system attacks certain cells of the brain and spinal cord. It causes neurological symptoms that range from difficulty walking to cognitive decline. The most common clinical variant is relapsing-remitting MS, which is characterized by neurological symptoms with recovery in between relapses. My interests are in understanding how the immune system of some individuals predisposes them to MS and orchestrates the autoimmune disease process.

What exciting projects are you working on?

I’m currently working on a very exciting project that investigates sex differences in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis, known as experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE). It’s been known for several decades that females are more susceptible to both MS and EAE. In fact, women are three times more likely to develop MS than men are. Under the direction of Melissa Brown, PhD, I am investigating the cellular mechanisms responsible for male protection. While many researchers study females, we feel that better understanding why males are protected will reveal insights for treating MS patients. Specifically, we study a population of cells called “type 2 innate lymphoid cells” (ILC2s), which are a subtype of immune cells. In EAE/MS, we hypothesize that ILC2s dampen the autoimmune response and are protective against relapses. We discovered that ILC2s accumulate and are more active in the brains and spinal cords of male mice with EAE compared to female mice, perhaps explaining why males are protected from disease. Now we are investigating the upstream mechanisms to explain the sex-disparate activation of ILC2s. Our working hypothesis invokes a role for testosterone-dependent mast cell activation.

Russi and Brown’s research was a finalist for the Golden Mole Award, which celebrates the moments of serendipity of science. 

What attracted you to the MD/PhD program?

I can’t say I’ve always loved science – I actually wanted to be a painter for several years of my early childhood. However my goal has been to be a medical investigator for quite some time now. While I’ve always enjoyed science, it was the experience of losing my mother to MS that really drove me to pursue a career in medical research. I wanted to better understand the disease process and how to improve treatment options. Through an intensive research program as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, I learned that the exploratory nature of biomedical research was just what I was looking for. However, it became clear to me that something was missing. That something was a bigger perspective and a need for instantaneous impact, which is why I decided to pursue the dual degree. Working with patients is such a humbling and encouraging experience. I believe that both my clinical and scientific ambitions will augment each other throughout my career.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

I’ve had many wonderful and exciting experiences while at Feinberg. One of my favorite experiences has been working with CommunityHealth Clinic, a free clinic in West Town for uninsured patients, through the Education Centered Medical Home (ECMH) program. Working with a team of students and two attending physicians, we provide care to a cohort of high-risk patients. I really enjoy working closely with a consistent team of individuals to impact patient care. As a student, it is gratifying to be involved in clinical decision-making and to observe patient improvement over the course of several months.

Another great opportunity I had was to represent Feinberg and share my research at the National Student MD/PhD Conference in Keystone, Colorado. This was a fantastic experience to meet and work with several other students from MD/PhD programs around the nation. It was invigorating to learn from my peers and their diverse experiences. 

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

My mentors at Feinberg have been amazingly supportive. From my interests in research, teaching and clinical medicine, I have always been able to find an encouraging and knowledgeable mentor. The one characteristic that all my mentors share is that they challenge me. They push me to discover my passions and develop my skills. Importantly, they also encourage me to challenge them on concepts. I think this is one of the best characteristics of the Feinberg faculty – they are open, welcoming, and enjoy a good heated discussion. The passionate discussions I have had with my mentors have really allowed me to grow, both personally and professionally. 

What do you do in your free time?

My husband and I just welcomed our son, Curtis Michael, at the end of May. We are enjoying watching him grow and learn many new things! We also have two pugs and enjoy taking the whole family on long weekend walks or to the dog beach. In any extra free time, I enjoy running!  

What are your plans for after graduation?

As of now, I plan to pursue a neurology residency. In the long run, I hope to stay in academic medicine, running both a lab and seeing patients in a clinic setting.