Brahm Coler ’19 Researches HIV Vaccine at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA

Hi! I’m Brahm Coler and I’m a rising senior with a Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology major. For the last few weeks, I’ve been working in one of Dr. Julie McElrath’s labs at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here in Seattle, WA. This lab specializes in the development of cellular immunogenicity assays. These assays identify and isolate vaccine-induced T-cell and B-cell responses in human clinical vaccine trials. Although the lab does focus on other diseases like malaria, ebola, and tuberculosis, the primary disease that is studied here is human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the majority of my focus/research has been centered on procedures involving the viral structure and immune responses associated with HIV. I work alongside 10 technicians and three other interns to explore how our adaptive immune response can be studied and stimulated in response to this disease and to the vaccines being developed for it. Each intern has their own project that they’re working on and one or two of the technicians helps oversee our work in the lab.

The lab meets regularly to discuss weekly updates on various research projects and we also have weekly “Immunology Discussions” and “Literature Reviews” where people can give presentations on interesting topics in immunology or peer-review cutting-edge research being performed in other labs right here at the FHCRC. I’ll be leading next week’s “Immunology Discussion” on the topic of neutrophils and the critical role they play in pathogen recognition and elimination.

My main project this summer is to develop and perform a novel capture assay that will isolate and characterize antigen-specific plasmablasts. Plasmablasts are the precursor to plasma cells, a type of cell that secretes antibodies to identify and combat infection and injury. I’ve been working both under the hood, pipetting cells, media and antibodies into various tubes and plates as well as at a computer that is connected to a flow cytometer that allows me to study the size and granularity of individual cells as they flow through the cytometer. The combination of these methods allows for the isolation of individual memory B-cells stimulated by vaccination with a recombinant HIV envelope protein. This assay is particularly exciting because, unlike other related assays, this one can be reused and widely applied while still allowing for specific phenotypes to be identified or gated against to strengthen the specificity of the cells being studied. This research will contribute to our understanding of the efficacy of an HIV vaccine that is currently being studied in its clinical trial stage.

What’s so cool about this research opportunity is that it synthesizes essentially all of the science classes that I’ve taken at Whitman. The assay requires an understanding of topics I learned in general & organic chemistry, biology, genetics, infectious disease, physics, AND I’m still learning a lot more here that I didn’t know before! The experience has also helped deepen my appreciation for the break-neck speed at which the science community is progressing towards cures and preventative measures for some of the world’s greatest ails. Getting to be on the forefront of this research has been a pleasure and a privilege. I look forward to whatever the rest of the summer has in store.


Experiences like Brahm’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff

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