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Alumnus Wins NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship to Study Immune Cells

September 27, 2016

Nicholas Frankel (PhD 2015, MCDB), postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, has received a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health to study how groups of human immune cells regulate their population size. His work may help create new molecular tools for immunotherapy.

After graduating from Rice University with a major in bioengineering, Frankel came to Yale to study methodologies from physics and engineering that he could apply to classical topics in biology. This interface among fields is called quantitative biology. When he visited the lab of Thierry Emonet, he was intrigued by the question of why some bacteria in a bacterial colony behave differently from others, given that they all share the same genetic material. In addition to being a fundamental question for basic biology, this puzzle has relevance to medical issues such as the ability of small numbers of infectious bacteria within a colony to escape antibiotic eradication.

Many traditional biological methods are not suitable for studying single cells, so answering this question required combining traditional approaches with quantitative techniques from physics, computer modeling, and engineering. He found that the behavioral differences observed within a bacterial colony might actually be an adaptive strategy. In some cases, cells with different behaviors appeared to be uniquely suited to different tasks, such as foraging for nutrients or locating the center of a nutrient source. Since individuals were unable to perform well at all of these tasks on their own, populations containing a number of these different “specialist” cells performed better across tasks.

This form of beneficial diversity can arise entirely from random differences in protein expression among individuals, even without genetic differences, and these random differences themselves can be under evolutionary selection,” he found.

Frankel published his findings in the journal eLife and co-authored two other papers on the topic. His innovative PhD research earned the John Spangler Nicholas Dissertation Prize at Commencement. At UCSF, he is continuing to explore similar questions, this time with a focus on immune cells.

While working on his PhD research, Frankel was also an active musician at Yale. He regularly performed with and composed new music for Gamelan Suprabanggo, the Yale University Javanese Gamelan Ensemble. He also played guitar in Linnunrata, a Nordic folk music quartet that performed around Connecticut.