Over the last week, we have gotten to know the newest scholars in the Postdoctoral Fellowship for Academic Diversity at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a program designed to strengthen the Research Institute’s diverse population of postdoctoral investigators. Every year, new researchers join the program and contribute their unique perspectives to various fields of pediatric science, from genomics to neurobiology.
Annabel Torres, PhD, our third and final featured fellow, constantly seeks new challenges so that she can become a stronger scientist and mentor to others. Currently studying the cellular and genetic mechanisms associated with autoimmune disease in the lab of Andrew Wells, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Pathology at CHOP, Dr. Torres believes that diversity in science should encompass differences in life experiences as well as academic background. After witnessing her mother survive breast cancer and undergo chemotherapy, Dr. Torres was inspired to immerse herself in studying a range of scientific branches — from cancer research to bioinformatics — driven by the desire to help develop better treatments for complex disease.
Could you briefly describe your background and what compelled you to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity?
I attended Rider University as a Biology major and became a first-generation college graduate. During my final year at Rider, I was accepted into the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate program, which helps selected minority students apply for and prepare for graduate school. In 2016, I became the first student from that program at Rider University to graduate with a PhD. I applied to the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity for the chance to work with great scientists who do cutting-edge research. This was a tremendous opportunity, and the lab that I work in has many collaborations that allow me to learn and explore many areas of science. I am very grateful to be a part of this community.
What does diversity in research mean to you?
Diversity in research is a collaboration amongst scientists who not only have different scientific expertise but also come from different backgrounds, different walks of life. This type of coming together is what leads to great discoveries and new ideas. Individuals from different backgrounds have different views, different ways of thinking about solutions to various problems. It is this type of diversity that will move us forward in designing new and better treatments and to make scientific breakthroughs that we will see in our lifetime.
What are some research projects you’re excited about?
Currently, I am focusing on a CD4+ T-cell fate called anergy, which is a T-cell that has not been fully activated and therefore goes into a sort of dormant state where it cannot respond to foreign molecules. This is a process that has been implicated in autoimmune diseases and transplant rejection and can be targeted for therapeutic uses. I am identifying regions of open chromatin in anergic T-cells in order to investigate if these regions contain single nucleotide variants that are associated with autoimmune diseases.
Utilizing current methods, I am silencing these regions of the genome to determine what genes these variants are regulating and evaluate if these genes have been implicated in any autoimmune disease. This will hopefully lead to the discovery of new drug-able targets in the treatment of autoimmune diseases.
What inspired you to focus on cell biology and regenerative medicine, and what do you hope to achieve in your research?
I received my PhD at Thomas Jefferson University in cell biology and regenerative medicine where I worked on a cellular process called autophagy and its role in angiogenesis and tumor progression. During my graduate work, I was very interested in cancer research as my mother is a breast cancer survivor, and I witnessed firsthand the effects of chemotherapy, a primitive treatment, and thought, there must be a better way. My curiosity and passion for all branches of science led me to do my postdoc in immunology and bioinformatics. I am always searching for ways to expand my knowledge and challenge myself, as this will make me a better scientist and mentor.