Meet Aleeza Gerstein, 2021 Rh Award Winner in the Health Sciences category
Aleeza Gerstein is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Science, who specializes in the evolution of human fungal pathogens. Her interdisciplinary lab combines clinical sampling, microbial experiments, and computational statistical methods to understand conditions that promote disease.
Gerstein is the 2021 recipient of the Terry G. Falconer Memorial Rh Institute Foundation Emerging Researcher Award in the Interdisciplinary category, in recognition of her leadership in the research of chronic conditions that affects many women. UM Today caught up with her recently to learn more about her and the research she is undertaking.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your research.
I was born in Winnipeg, but I left to pursue my education for 17 years before I came back to start my faculty position in 2018. In my time away from Winnipeg, I began studying fungal microbes. Microbes are great because we can literally evolve populations in days, weeks, or months in the lab to study how they evolve in the environments that we’re interested in.
In Graduate School, I started getting interested in applying this method to looking at human pathogens and the acquisition of drug resistance. In my lab, we’re trying to take this one step further by collaborating with local clinicians. I’ve been really fortunate to have a great collaborator who’s an OBGYN, and we are able to do more applied research examining recurrent yeast infections – which is essentially evolution in action in the human body.
Why is this research important?
At my lab we are searching for the root causes of recurrence, which is still a mystery in many cases. There is often a focus in the scientific world on illnesses that kill people, but non-lethal conditions that are chronic can also severely affect people’s quality of life.
For example, Vulvovaginal Candidiasis, or yeast infections, affect three-quarters of all women at some point in their lives. In many cases these infections re-occur and there is no known reason why. Diseases that affect only women are consistently understudied. So, I feel very passionately about this research program. Many women silently suffer silently, and I think it’s time we acknowledge and invest resources into studying these kinds of infections.
What does the Rh Award mean to you?
I’m cross appointed between two departments, microbiology and statistics, and my training is very much biology. Being interdisciplinary, my research program doesn’t fit well into many funding categories. So, receiving this award in the interdisciplinary category is very affirming of the full scope of my work and collaborators. It shows that our unconventional methods and research questions are worthy of funding and acknowledgment, without needing to restrict ourselves to just one facet of our work.
What do you hope to achieve in the future?
Ultimately, we hope to someday see fewer women having recurrent infections.
Another long-term project in my lab is experimental evolution. We’re currently evolving fungal populations to different levels of drugs used to treat them and we see what happens at the genetic level. We can determine the rate that drug resistance and the mutations involved are influenced by different drug dosages and environments that hold lots of nutrients versus very little nutrients, or at different pH levels.
Eventually, we will gain a better understanding of how organisms evolve resistance to drugs, and about microbial adaptation in general. We are already starting to see new fungal pathogens emerge on the planet, potentially linked to climate change. Understanding the factors that drive adaptation gives us have a chance to develop new drugs to treat them. It is very difficult and time consuming to develop new antimicrobial drugs, and without them we could be powerless to fight these new types of infection.
What about you would people find surprising?
If you look at my CV, it looks like I’ve had a linear trajectory to my research career. But I think for a lot of us, you feel like a duck, paddling like crazy underneath the surface, although, all anyone sees is the calm above the water.
I love my job, but before I got here, I went through a lot of questioning of whether I would pursue an academic job at all – whether that was the best way for me to contribute to society. So, my advice would be, that there isn’t only one career that will make you happy or fulfilled. There are many potential paths that any of us could walk down. Remember that things may look linear or easy for those around you, but that perception isn’t always the reality.
Any advice for early career researchers and students?
There is nothing more important than having passion for what you do. You, want to wake up every morning with a sense of excitement, because research is a fundamentally hard path. Most of what we do is fail. That’s the scientific method. We try things, they don’t work, we try something else.
I think it’s important to go into grad school with eyes wide open. Take it from an elder millennial, there isn’t one right path to success. We’re still living lives as researchers, and academia can be a great career, but it’s not for everyone.
I have personally found at each step of my career that community has been essential, especially in grad school – you cannot do it alone. Being a part of a community and working actively to build that community is where I’ve found comfort and happiness in my work and in my life. Seek out your people actively and build the community around you. That’s where I found my passion.