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Student Q&A: Nicole Palacio, DGP

Nicole Palacio

Nicole Palacio, a fifth-year student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DGP), studies immune response to viral vaccines in the laboratory of Pablo Penaloza-MacMaster, PhD, assistant professor of Microbiology-Immunology.

Read a Q&A with Palacio below.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in the west area of Puerto Rico, in a town called Mayagüez. My parents are from Medellín, Colombia, so I grew up influenced by these two amazing cultures.

What are your research interests?

I'm very interested in understanding the immune system in different scenarios, but especially during infection and vaccination. Even though we have made tremendous progress with anti-infective agents, new or improved therapies against pathogens are still needed.

Similarly, in the vaccinology area, improving some of the existing vaccines to induce even more optimal immune responses would have a great impact on public health. Most importantly, we still lack approved vaccines for life-threatening infections such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Understanding how the immune system mounts a response in both scenarios (infection and vaccination) is critical to help us combat infections with powerful anti-infectives and to develop highly protective vaccines to prevent infections.

What exciting projects are you working on?

My thesis work in the Penaloza laboratory aims to develop a novel strategy to substantially improve the immune response and protection induced by viral vaccines. Using preclinical models, we have focused on modulating molecules called interferons during viral immunization. Interferons are immune system molecules that are critical for viral control and immunity to pathogens.

Publishing our findings in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, we found that although necessary for the development of a robust immune response following immunization, production of these molecules immediately following vaccine delivery can impair the magnitude and breadth of the immune response. Interestingly, we have shown with different models of viral immunization that transiently blocking interferons results in higher immune responses and increased protection against infection.

Given the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the lab shifted to conduct research to better understand the immune response in COVID-19, immune mechanisms following vaccination, and vaccine development for this virus. I have been lucky to be in a position where I had the immunology expertise to quickly contribute to this new avenue of research in the Penaloza laboratory as well as to participate in our current COVID-19 related collaborations within and outside NU.

What attracted you to your program?

The DGP offered flexibility for our laboratory rotations during our first year and this, coupled with the diversity and quality of scientific research at NU, was very appealing to me. Additionally, the friendliness of students, staff, and the location of Feinberg convinced me that this was the right place for me to conduct research, receive high quality training, and become a successful scientist.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

Northwestern has many exceptional and prestigious schools and both the University and my program enabled me to use those to gain more knowledge and experience in areas outside of science. For example, I took the Management for Scientists and Engineers Certificate offered by Kellogg and the Clinical Research Coordinator course offered by the NUCATS center at Feinberg. This has allowed me to use my time in graduate school to not only develop as a scientist but also to be better equipped for my future career.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

From the moment I interviewed at NU, I noticed how friendly and approachable the faculty at Feinberg were. In the past 4 years, I have experienced firsthand how talented, highly collaborative, and willing to help faculty members are across departments.

What do you do in your free time?

When I'm not in the lab I love to cook, travel, try out new restaurants, spend time with friends and family, read, listen to podcasts (I'm an avid podcast listener!) and exercise.

What are your plans after graduation?

Following my PhD completion, I plan to transition into the pharmaceutical industry with the goal of using my scientific expertise to improve patient outcomes in the clinic.