Engineering the Summer is an annual series following molecular engineering students as they embark on summer internships and industry experiences.
The first time Rachel Wallace encountered immunology, she remembers being struck by its immense scope and complexity.
It was during a group project when she and a team of her fellow students were asked to develop a diagnostic test for immunoparalysis, a serious condition that can sometimes affect sepsis patients. Wallace, a chemical engineering major at the time, was responsible for researching the condition and reporting back. But what should have been a brief exercise turned quickly into a new, all-engrossing fascination.
Wallace was enthralled by the immune system, drawn in by its vastness—how much people had come to understand and yet, how much remained unexplained.
That one experience was enough to ignite a new passion, and now Wallace, a 5th-year PhD student at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, is working on new ways to modulate and treat unwanted immune responses. This summer, she’s applying her knowledge to the venture capital market as a fellow with Northpond Ventures.
Considering the broad immunology landscape, what led you study immunoengineering specifically?
I found it really difficult to decide what to focus on because there’s so much interesting research out there. I was ultimately drawn to Prof. Jeffrey Hubbell’s lab because of his focus on translational research—on research that makes a direct impact on clinical care. Focusing on patients is critical and keeps me motivated even when a project doesn’t work out the way I planned. It’s a personal subject too. I have friends and family members who struggle with autoimmune diseases and the lack of treatment options can be extremely frustrating.
Talk to me about your experience this summer. How has it been?
I’m currently about halfway through a fellowship with Northpond Ventures, who support breakthrough science and technology-driven businesses. It’s been a great experience so far. One of my primary responsibilities is to landscape a specific area of biotech, which involves researching different companies and technologies and figuring out what stage of development they’re in. Then I use that research to make investment recommendations.
I’ve also been pulled into other projects at the firm, which has taught me a lot about the job. I’ve been included in pitch calls and discussions with key opinion leaders, and I’ve done research to support diligence on new opportunities.
How did you prepare for your internship?
PME offers a lot of collaborative opportunities. I’ve been involved with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation for several years, participating in many of their programs, such as the Innovation Fund Associates Program and the Polsky Science Innovation Fellows program. Without those, I would not have been as well qualified for an internship in the venture capital space. I also stay involved in outreach activities organized by PME that focus on engaging with the public about science.
Talk about your work at PME? What are you focused on right now?
The goal of my research at PME is to prevent unwanted antibody responses. Many people are familiar with vaccines and how they cause the immune system to produce antibodies against one specific target, such as SARS-CoV-2. I’m focused on developing a sort of inverse vaccine that prevents an antibody response against one specific target, leaving the rest of the immune system intact.
We hope to develop a tool that can prevent anti-drug antibody responses, which is when a person’s immune system reacts negatively to a certain medication. It’s a major problem that often limits the treatment options for several conditions.
How do you see your field growing in the coming years?
I think the field of immunoengineering will continue to grow. Inducing immune tolerance is crucial for treating autoimmune conditions and allergies, which are growing more prevalent in western society. These are complex disorders that require innovative approaches. Hopefully, in the next 10 to 20 years, we’ll be able to offer patients cures or at least more targeted treatments that do not involve fully suppressing the entire immune system, which is the standard approach today.
How has the environment at PME influenced your work?
The emphasis on interdisciplinary science and problem-solving at PME has opened many unique learning experiences outside my lab work.
As a student at PME, you’re encouraged to focus on solving big problems, and there’s a lot of support and special training to facilitate that. The school offers training in science communication, entrepreneurship, and commercialization that’s been crucial for me and my career path. Without them, I would not have the same understanding of the broader science ecosystem and the opportunities available for those with a science background outside of the lab, areas such as business or politics.
Even if a student remains at the bench, understanding those broader systems is incredibly valuable if you want your science to extend beyond the lab and make a difference.
What role do you hope to play in that future?
I hope to stay involved in the biotech entrepreneurship ecosystem. As understanding of the immune system has evolved, engineers and scientists have started developing innovative technologies and therapies. The science behind these new ideas and the potential for patients is very exciting and I want to help make them a reality. Whether that role will be in translational science, venture capital funding, or business development within a startup is something I still have to decide.
PME is at the forefront of engineering and science related to materials systems, addressing challenges and technological issues that have a major impact on humanity and quality of life.
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