Two Immunology Graduate Students Receive Two Research Fellowships—Each

The students in the Pilar Alcaide Lab at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences credit their mentor with helping them succeed

Graduate students at Tufts routinely receive impressive grants and fellowships, but for two students in the same lab to receive not one, but two, fellowships from two of the country’s most prestigious organizations in the same time period is extraordinary.

The recipients are Sasha Smolgovsky and Abe Bayer. Smolgovsky is pursuing a PhD in immunology and Bayer is an immunology student in the MD/PhD combined degree program. Both submitted their grant applications in 2021, and by the beginning of this year, both had learned they’d received funding in the form of fellowships from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as the American Heart Association (AHA).

Bayer and Smolgovsky are pursuing different research projects, but they share a mentor in Pilar Alcaide, a Kenneth and JoAnn G. Wellner Professor in the Department of Immunology at the School of Medicine and director of the immunology graduate program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. The two students credit Alcaide’s dedication and enthusiasm for helping them succeed.

“Pilar goes above and beyond to put in the time and effort to make sure these grant [applications] are as perfect as they can be,” says Bayer. “I owe my success significantly to her mentorship. I don’t think it would have happened without her help along the way and her driving us forward.”

Bayer’s research focuses on understanding how the T-cells in the immune system become activated and cause heart inflammation in heart disease; he is also applying his findings from this project to understand inflammation in cancer.

Smolgovsky’s work centers on characterizing the immune response in a type of heart failure, called heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, that is highly prevalent in people worldwide and is associated with several comorbidities. She decided to apply to the graduate program at Tufts after seeing Alcaide speak at a conference.

Both students had previously submitted applications for the NIH grant but did not receive funding on their first submission.

“I always tell my students not to expect to get them because these are really hard to get, but it's a great training experience,” says Alcaide. The second time around, after working with them to refine their NIH submissions, she encouraged them to apply for both the AHA and the NIH fellowships, so they’d have a backup if one didn’t come through.

“This is a very exciting success story,” says Alcaide. “I've been pretty lucky because most of my grad students have received fellowships from the NIH and the AHA, but it is very unusual for students to get two at the same time. It is really exciting to see them grow as scientists. It is amazing to see the evolution from the first version of the application to the version that is submitted and funded, and how much they grow through the process. It is also fun to team up and work together and see how they celebrate the success.”

Having received the funding to continue their research and complete their degrees, Bayer and Smolgovsky are now working with Alcaide closely on doing experiments, gathering data, and preparing to submit papers for publication.

“To not only see the project accepted and funded, but to see a publication about it will be very exciting,” says Bayer. “It's such an incredible feeling getting the fellowships. You spend so much time focusing on this one very, very small piece of science in the grand scheme of all of the science that exists, so getting strangers across the country to believe that what you're doing matters and they should give you money to do it, you kind of don't believe it.”

Smolgovsky wants to convey to prospective graduate students how important it is to find a dedicated and supportive mentor.

“The mentorship I received on these fellowships is something I tell everybody about,” she says. “I felt guided at every stage, and I had feedback on absolutely every component of the fellowships. I advise people who are selecting mentors to be really critical about what they personally want and are seeking in a PhD experience, and to find a mentor that uplifts and complements the things you are looking for, but also brings a lot of elements that you might not be able to [have] on your own.”

Smologovsky will certainly never forget how she felt when she learned that she received the funding after all her hard work, nor will she forget how excited Alcaide was on her behalf.

“I was extremely grateful and very, very excited,” says Smolgovsky. “But honestly, I think Pilar was even more excited, which felt really nice. She makes it very clear to everybody that any time a student of hers succeeds, she feels like she's succeeding as well. She really emphasized that this is a win for everybody in the lab.”

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