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Dr. Cheri Lee, Postdoctoral Fellow at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, MD

As part of the HGSAC, we love honoring our alumni and keeping up with their successes! Alumni stories inspire students by giving them career path ideas. As part of this spotlight series, I asked one of our Penn State alums to answer some questions about her career journey up until this point.

Meet Dr. Cheri Lee, Postdoctoral Fellow at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, MD.  She earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology from Penn State, in 2015. Her former advisor was Dr. Craig E. Cameron. 

Here are her responses–in her words:

Dissertation title: Viral-polymerase-mechanism based strategies for viral attenuation and vaccine development.

My dissertation work dealt with the population dynamics of RNA viruses and how, when manipulated, they can be attenuated and used as possible vaccines. As a model for RNA viruses, I used poliovirus. RNA viruses replicate with a high error frequency, which creates a heterogeneous population of mutants dubbed quasispecies. Population genetics theory states that RNA viruses replicate along an error threshold, the theoretical limit in which the virus can maintain its genetic information. An increase in the mutation rate and/or a decrease in the population will drive the viral population towards extinction. Antiviral drugs that increase the mutational frequency and/or mutations in the polymerase that alter population diversity should also exhibit a decrease in fitness. Working with a panel of polymerase fidelity mutants I have been able to study the relationship between fidelity and attenuation. Using this approach, I have been able to determine the effect of fidelity has on pathogenesis and development of the adaptive immune response.

How did you choose your degree program and what you like about your current career?

Ever since high school, I have been fascinated by viruses and how they initiate disease. My first semester in college I visited the career center and learned that there was such a thing as a Virologist and after that I was hooked. I attended George Mason University and at that time they didn’t offer many different degree programs so I majored in Biology and concentrated all of my electives in Microbiology. After graduating from college I worked for several years as a research technician at the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) in the department of Viral Diseases aiding in vaccine development against dengue virus. It was there that I learned molecular and cellular biology techniques and worked with both mice and non-human primates. It was this job that solidified for me my desire for viral pathogenesis research and gave me the push I needed to go back to school and get my Ph.D.

I was drawn to Penn State mainly because it was close to home and I could easily visit family on the weekends, which eventually proved to be nearly impossible! Also because of the amazing research that is conducted on campus especially the work being done in the Cameron Lab. I was attracted to Craig’s lab due to the work he was doing with poliovirus and the idea that altering polymerase fidelity can serve as a universal vaccine strategy. My project was on poliovirus pathogenesis in a transgenic mouse model, but it really only scratched the surface of pathogenesis seeing as we were more interested in the virus and not so much how it interacted with the host. When thinking about my next career steps I knew that I wanted to delve more into pathogenesis and host immunity in response to infection with an RNA virus, which is what I am currently doing at NIH. I currently working in the laboratory of Vanessa M. Hirsch and again I am working with non-human primates. We use simian-immunodeficiency virus (SIV) infected rhesus macaques as a model for AIDS pathogenesis and to develop effective vaccines strategies. My specific project is to investigate hidden reservoirs of SIV in the brains of rhesus macaques with neuroAIDS.

What have been some obstacles you’ve had to overcome in pursuit of your educational and career goals?

My number one obstacle as always has been me doubting my own abilities. After college, I never wanted to go back to school and I worked for a long time knowing that I wanted to return to school and get my Ph.D., but not feeling confident enough that I would be accepted anywhere. I reached a point in my career where I felt I had hit the ceiling and there was no more upward movement. At that point, I felt my only choice was to go back to school, which has been the best decision I ever made.

What have been some sources of inspiration both in your career and in your life?

Number one inspiration has always been my mom. As a single mother, she worked very hard to continue to educate herself so that she could provide my sister and I with the best opportunities in life and somehow she made it look easy! She instilled in me a strong work ethic and told me from a very young age to be career driven and as long as I love what I do it won’t feel so much like work and she was right.

What would you describe as your strong suit?

My strong suit is my tenacity. When there is an obstacle in front of me I don’t stop until I either get around it, over it or punch right through it.

How has Penn State impacted your life?

I learned a lot at Penn State. First, I learned that I can be strong and can deal with a lot of adversity and still somehow get through it while still maintaining a smile. Second, I learned that nothing matters unless you have friends and family to share your successes with. I made many friends in State College, year after year. They all helped me through grad school and just life in general and I will forever be grateful to all them for that.

What advice would you give someone who would like to pursue a career in your field?

Start working in a lab as soon as you can to get experience. Universities have lots of opportunities for undergraduate research or work-study positions. Experience is key. Learn techniques that will make you indispensable in the lab and able to collaborator with other scientists. Publications are important but they will come only if you are able to generate data. Of course, the more you are able to learn and more you are able to publish the more job opportunities you will be able to open yourself up to.

What are your words of wisdom for current graduate students?

My best advice for current grad students is to make sure you keep a running dialogue with your advisor and that you both agree that you are making progress with your studies and also have yearly committee meetings. Professors are very busy and sometimes they can lose track of what their students are doing (even though it may feel as though they are avoiding us…). You have to make sure that you remind them that a) you exist, b) you have data and c) you don’t want to be in grad school forever!

What are your plans for the future?

My ultimate goal is to direct my own independent research program on viral population dynamics and pathogenesis.

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