October 13, 2015

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Prof. Avery August Explores Societal Impact of Immunology Research

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“As scientists, we need to think about how our work impacts society. We need to be able to engage with society more,” said Prof. Avery August, immunology, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Veterinary Sciences.

(Sonya Ryu / Sun Senior Photographer)

(Sonya Ryu / Sun Senior Photographer)

A Belizean-born scientist, August immigrated to the United States and obtained a B.S. in medical technology from the California State University at Los Angeles. He then acquired his Ph.D. in immunology from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. Outside of Cornell, August has also been a department director at Pennsylvania State University and a postdoctoral research fellow at Rockefeller University.

August’s research deals primarily with the immune system in vertebrates and the various biochemical compounds present in the immune system cells. He and his team have managed to halt the allergic response in mice using a small molecule called BTP, which was an abandoned project of a pharmaceutical company.

“The work that we’re doing in allergies — we started with a small molecule that a company had made that they weren’t interested in, and we tried to figure out how this small molecule works,” August said. “We discovered that this small molecule can block allergies and we discovered the target of the small molecule.”

The results that his lab has achieved with BTP in mice may also be applicable to humans, according to August.

“The research that we do is mostly on mice, [but] the thing about the immune system is that [it] works the same way in all vertebrates, in essence,” he said. “So now we’re trying to see if we can get more information about how [BTP’s] target works, and also if we can use derivatives of [BTP] to block allergies [in humans and other animals].”

(Sonya Ryu / Sun Senior Photographer)

(Sonya Ryu / Sun Senior Photographer)

Another major facet of August’s research is his work with Interleukin-2 Inducible T-cell Kinases, called ITKs, which he has devoted most of his professional life to.

“Each time we look in the immune system we look at a different cell,” August said. “The immune system is made up of all these cell types. People have heard of T-cells, and B-cells that make antibodies. But in each type of cell we look at, [ITK] has a different function. That’s really fascinating for us.”

According to August, gaining a better understanding of ITK can allow people to create drugs to target certain immune cell functions during certain diseases.

“In different types of … cells this protein has a different function. So that tells us something about how the immune system works, and it also tells us that we can balance out those functions if we want to target [those cells] pharmaceutically in the form of a drug,” he said. “And a lot of companies are actually very interested in this protein and they’re making compounds to try and manipulate those [cell] functions in certain types of diseases.”

As an undergraduate studying at CSULA, August said he developed an enthusiasm for research and scientific investigation.

“I started doing research as an undergrad, and for me, the first time I did the experiment, it worked. But the other ten times [I had to do it], it didn’t. But I kept coming back to that first time because that first time gave you that rush,” August said. “And that rush is that perhaps, you’re the first person in the world to see this thing, to discover this thing. And then from there, you can [share] it with other people.”

Though he acknowledges that sometimes his experiments do not go according to plan, August said failures are simply a byproduct of innovation.

“If you do experiments and they’re always working, then you’re not being innovative enough. You’re not challenging the dogma enough. I would say that most experiments don’t work, and then we have a few that work. Those are the ones that keep us going,” he said.

Outside of his research, August also puts a lot of effort into mentoring his students and recruiting students into the science field, especially students of minority heritage. He often attends many recruitment events and likes to work with students one-on-one.

“One of the things that I do … is training graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and undergraduates, and also trying to recruit students from a diverse population to go into science,” August said. “I talk with students, I serve on panels … I spend a lot of time thinking about this issue, the pipeline — how do we keep our pipeline going in [and make sure] that people are getting scientific training and going on to make the sort of discoveries they want to make?”

August said he believes that scientists should look for ways to use their knowledge to make a tangible impact on the world.

“A goal I’d like to [accomplish] is to try and take the expertise that I have and use it for broader societal issues,” he said. “One of the things I just finished is the ‘Op-Ed Project,’ [a series of] workshops that [allowed me] to use [my] expertise to step out of [my] academic role and affect the world.”

August also said a scientist’s success should not be measured by the success of his research alone.

“[Writing op-eds] has been a satisfying experience, because it allows you to get feedback — not from other scientists, but from the community who reads your pieces,” August said. “And [this] is the type of thing I’d like to do more of.”