Visitor of the Week: Yajing Gao

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Meet Yajing Gao of the UT Southwestern Medical Center. Yajing is a fifth-year graduate student in the Texas institution and is a member of Chandrashekhar Pasare’s and Edward Wakeland’s labs. She was on campus for the 2018 Gene Expression & Signaling in the Immune System meeting where she presented a talk entitled “Transcriptome profiling of pathogen-specific CD4 T cells identifies T cell-intrinsic caspase-1 as an important regulator of Th17 differentiation.”

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am interested in how innate immune cues from dendritic cells instruct CD4 T cell differentiation and protection against pathogens. I am currently working on using a newly developed in vitro model to profile and study pathogen-specific CD4 T cell differentiation.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
I entered graduate school prepared to study neuroscience or immunology. But after taking a couple of immunology courses, I decided to focus on immunology and specifically DC-T cell interactions. The complexity of CD4 T cells intrigued me which, I realized, is a very fundamental -- but unanswered -- puzzle piece of the immune response when determining infection. Now that we have tools that enable us to examine T cell responses at a higher resolution (for example systems biology approaches, and high-throughput profiling), I thought it is an interesting idea to revisit the role of DCs in shaping CD4 T cell differentiation.

How did your scientific journey begin? 
I grew up with my grandfather who was a scientist in physics and an avid parakeet breeder. I partook in his hobby when I was a child and parakeet breeding was not only among my first “genetic” experiments but I enjoyed the act of experimenting. My grandfather encouraged me to read more sophisticated books on the physiology of birds and animals in general, and had always strongly supported my pursuing a higher education. He kept my enthusiasm up for scientific exploring and experimenting, and because of my grandfather, I became interested in animal genetics which eventually led me to choose a biology major in college.

Was there something specific about the Gene Expression and Signaling in the Immune System meeting that drew you to attend?
My research approach to immunological problems from a transcriptional perspective fits very well with the overarching theme of this meeting. Also, I was very honored to be selected to speak about my unpublished data.

What is your key takeaway from the meeting?
I have two key takeaways: 1) The single cell profiling technology has really taken us to an era of high resolution of cellular heterogeneity; 2) Always approach a biological problem with an evolutionary view in mind.

How many meetings at CSHL have you attended?
This is the first CSHL meeting I ever attended, and I would love to come back for another immunology meeting.

Did you pick up or learn something new from the meeting that you plan to apply to your work?  
Since I am working on in vitro model of CD4 T cell differentiation and investigating the role of DCs in this biological process, I was very impressed by Dr. Gabriel Victora’s technique of labeling DC-T cell interaction in vivo. I envision that I could combine his technique into my system and start to focus on profiling their interactome.

If someone curious in attending a future iteration of this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I will definitely recommend them to come. It is a fantastic scientific meeting. The quality of the talks is very high and a large amount of new information was discussed. Also, there is ample time for interaction and scientific conversation.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I really loved the food! The culinary staff was very friendly and, on the first day of the meeting, they pointed out all of the good sightseeing spots on campus.

Thank you to Yajing for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.