Dulac Lab postdoc Zuri Sullivan (MCB ‘12) has been chosen as a 2021 Hanna H. Gray Fellow. This prestigious fellowship, which is administered by HHMI, supports promising biomedical researchers from minoritized backgrounds by funding both their postdoctoral work and their subsequent work as newly-minted primary investigators.
After over a year working on fellowship applications, Sullivan says that becoming a Gray Fellow is both an honor and a relief. “I’m really pleased and proud that it worked out,” she says. “It’s a huge opportunity and also a platform and a community. You’re also connecting with other young scientists but also HHMI investigators. So you have this incredible network of really talented people.”
Sullivan is also the author of a recently published review on food allergy in Cell and a forthcoming study in Science (March, 2021) about how certain immune cells help the gut adapt to shifting diets. Both papers are products of her Ph.D. work in Ruslan Medzhitov’s lab at Yale.
During her thesis research, Sullivan found evidence that an abundant but little-understood type of immune cell, called “gamma delta T cells,” can kickstart the remodeling of intestinal epithelial cells, a necessary step for adjusting to carbohydrate-rich diets.
“The surprising thing was that the immune system was involved in nutrition, that any immune cell would be involved in this,” Sullivan says. “Typically, we think about the immune system in the gut as being there to fight off infections and maintain homeostasis with our gut microbiome, but no one had found that an immune system cell could be involved in the other main function of the gut, which is nutrient uptake.”
These findings and publications impressed MCB faculty Catherine Dulac, who is now hosting Sullivan for her postdoc. “Zuri is an immensely creative and productive scientist who has already demonstrated a remarkable ability to develop interdisciplinary frameworks,” Dulac says. “She’s also a stellar communicator and advocate for diversity in STEM. I am very much looking forward to seeing her research uncover new interactions between the immune and nervous systems in the control of social behaviors.”
As a postdoc in the Dulac Lab, Sullivan will use her immunological expertise to follow up on evidence of the immune system shaping social behaviors. She’ll start by investigating what causes otherwise social animals to avoid social interactions while sick.
“When we get an infection, there’s a set of stereotyped behavioral responses that animals undergo in response,” Sullivan explains. “These are things like fever, loss of appetite, and also social withdrawal. It’s been understood for a long time that the immune system probably plays a role in regulating these responses but until recently we didn’t really have the tools to mechanistically address these questions….And so, I’m specifically interested in how the immune system influences our desire for social interaction and the drive for social connection that seems to be absent when you’re sick.”
Outside of the lab, Sullivan is deeply committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM fields and to communicating scientific findings to the public. As a grad student at Yale, she helped establish a departmental working group for Diversity and Inclusion and served as co-president of the outreach group Yale Science Diplomats. Continuing her efforts, Sullivan recently joined the Harvard Black Postdocs Association (HBPA) and the National Black Postdocs Association.
At present, Sullivan is settling into her new role as a postdoc and putting together an online course about the immunology of COVID for high school students in collaboration with Dr. Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard. She adds that she’s looking forward to her postdoctoral experience.
“I’m really excited and grateful to be here and to learn from everyone and to see all the amazing science that’s happening here,” she says.