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Student Q&A: Daniel Giraldo Perez, Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences

Daniel Giraldo Perez

Daniel Giraldo Perez, a sixth-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DGP), studies the innate immune response to the herpes simplex virus in the brain. Working in the laboratory of Richard Longnecker, PhD, the Dan and Bertha Spear Research Professor and a professor of Microbiology-Immunology, Giraldo Perez studies differences between newborn and adult brains that cause differing outcomes in HSV infection.

Read a Q&A with Perez below.

Where is your hometown?

I am originally from Bogotá, Colombia. Bogota is in the middle of the Andes, so it is surrounded by mountains. When I say I am from Colombia, people always assume I come from a tropical place — but because the altitude is around 8,500 feet, the average temperature is around 55-60ºF.

What are your research interests?

I have always been passionate about science and have explored many different fields. An enduring interest in biology led me to virology which is the subject of my dissertation. I find viruses fascinating because they are always challenging what we think is true in biology. They have very small genomes compared to most other organisms, but they are incredibly efficient in encoding all the necessary information they need to completely reprogram and take over a cell.

What exciting projects are you working on?

As a graduate student in the Longnecker laboratory, I study the innate immune response to herpes simplex virus (HSV) in the brain. HSV establishes a life-long infection in the brain but it is mostly asymptomatic in adults. However, when newborns become infected, they often exhibit sores, fever and sometimes even death. I am interested in studying specific differences in the immune response in the brain that can account for these very different outcomes.

My first paper, published in the journal mBio, examined at how different proteins are found at different levels in the newborn brain compared to the adult. We also experimented with a treatment to increase expression of certain proteins that can provide protection from infection in models of HSV infection. I am currently studying how different cell types in the brain contribute to this immune response. We know neurons are not very good at this, so we are interested in studying how other supporting cells in the brain provide protection against HSV. 

What attracted you to your program?

I decided to attend the DGP because it was an umbrella program that would allow me to explore many different interests without necessarily committing to one specific field of research. I also liked that the program was directly connected to Feinberg. I was interested in performing translational research, which is precisely the focus of most labs here. We also have a very strong microbiology department, so I was interested in joining one of the many labs doing virology research.

One fun fact is that my initials are also “DGP.”

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

I would say being a part of the Kids-Inspired Innovation for Careers in Science (KIICS) led by Patrick Seed definitely stands out to me. The goal of this program is to give PhD students exposure to clinical care and I had the opportunity to shadow the pediatric infectious diseases team at Lurie Children’s hospital during their rounds, attend grand rounds lectures and have regular meetings with M.Ds to discuss clinical trials. This was a unique opportunity because I was able to see the human side of all the diseases that I regularly hear about during research talks.

I have also been heavily involved with the DGP student council and have led our mentoring program for incoming student for the past few years. This has definitely been a very gratifying experience and gave me the opportunity to connect with most of the DGP student body.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

In my experience, faculty at Feinberg have always been very supportive and invested in the training of their students. They are all very passionate about science and are pushing each other to do the best science they can.

What do you do in your free time?

I have picked up a few hobbies during my time in graduate school. I took up running during my second year. I really enjoy running on the lakefront trail when the weather permits and try to run a couple of half marathons each year. I was lucky enough to get a spot for the Chicago Marathon in 2018. Recently, I have picked up rock climbing and try to do that a couple of times a week, which has been the perfect activity for winter. Before the pandemic, I also used to go to a lot of film festivals at the Gene Siskel Film Center or the Music Box theater. After moving to Chicago, I also developed a taste for beer and like to explore all the different breweries the city has to offer.

But by far, my favorite activity is volleyball. Anyone who knows me, knows that I try to play 3-4 times a week. I mostly enjoy indoor volleyball but try to go out to beach as much as I can during summer. I spent most of my free time last summer playing grass volleyball at different parks all around Chicago when everything else was closed because of the pandemic.

What are your plans for after graduation?

As I am nearing graduation, I am exploring many different career paths. I want to be able to use my scientific expertise outside of academia to help solve some of the most pressing issues we are facing right now. I am examining different options in the biopharmaceutical industry and in life science consulting.