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Jhanvi Sharma, Ph.D. – April 2022 Postdoc Feature

Written by Jhanvi Sharma, Ph.D. 

Around mid-March of 2020, a pandemic was declared due to COVID19. This pandemic affected lives of billions of people, including international students and scholars, in an unprecedented way. I was no different; my first postdoc position got pushed back by several months due to lockdowns and institutional hiring freezes. In late October 2020, I was finally able to start my postdoc journey at VUMC, a world-class medical center.  Trained as a biomaterialist and protein chemist, I based my decision of choosing a research lab that aligned with my background, suited my interest in engineering biomaterials for immune modulation with a translational research focus, and held a good publication record. I secured a postdoc position in an immunology lab at VUMC, where my postdoctoral assignment was on the identification of protective CD8+ T cell epitopes for developing a protein-based vaccine delivery platform to design next-generation vaccines for infectious diseases. The project was of immense interest and importance to me, as it allowed me to apply my previously acquired skills to engineer a biomaterial for the target purposes while also developing new skills to elucidate the molecular insights regarding antigen presentation. I believed such insights could be leveraged in the battle against other infectious agents such as COVID19. As I continued research work, I expanded my skills in immunology by performing immunoassays and in vivo studies to assess the immunogenicity of in silico identified immunodominant peptide epitopes in transgenic animal models. Though I valued this opportunity, I found myself questioning whether I had found my own true place in the Vanderbilt community. After discussing this with my mentors at the time, I began to seek out a new research environment. About a year after, I switched to Prof. Brunger’s lab in BME at VU where I felt the research program and lab ethos could support me in both my postdoctoral endeavors and long-term goal of obtaining a position in the gene and cell therapy industry.

My research in the current lab involves co-engineering cells and biomaterials to understand and control cell function for regenerative engineering. I leverage my expertise in molecular biology, protein chemistry, and biochemistry to program biomaterials with chimeric proteins and recognition motifs engineered by the lab. I am engaged in learning new skills such as cellular engineering and gene circuit design while honing my skills in cell culture. My future plan is that, in collaboration with Prof. Brunger, I will develop an independent research project bringing together these components to govern cellular responses to native and synthetic cues. I have been here for three months now and, so far, the experience has been what I had wished for in terms of mentorship, resources and opportunities, and I hope that my path continues along this trajectory. I have observed that BME offers excellent resources, state-of-the-art equipment and potential collaborative opportunities within both VU and VUMC labs. Importantly, the modern design of Engineering and Sciences Building (ESB) which houses our research group, facilitates easy exchange of ideas, resources and technologies, thus accelerating the pace of our efforts.

Overall, I have had a delightful experience pursuing postdoctoral training at Vanderbilt as it offers not only infrastructure for outstanding research but also access to many groups that support personal well-being and professional excellence of the postdoc community via several on-campus programs. ASPIRE is one such program run by the BRET office; weekly series of seminars held under the program provide a slew of information on career enrichment strategies and networking, which by the way, has been reported as the single most important factor in obtaining a job after postdoctoral training. I have taken advantage of some of these seminars in the past, and I look forward to attending many more. In addition, I often attend Employee Affinity Group (EAG) meetings that are organized in a relaxed setting to encourage interaction amongst postdocs, faculty and staff with an aim to foster an inclusive community. In an effort to begin networking, I am currently serving as a member of the Vanderbilt Postdoc Association planning committee for the upcoming postdoc symposium (October 2022).

Last, but not least, excellent IT staff and a wonderful team of medical doctors at Vanderbilt Hospital ensure that I continue to function uninterrupted in a happy and healthy manner, both professionally and personally. I would like to thank the Vanderbilt community for bestowing me with a rewarding postdoc experience so far, and I welcome prospective postdocs or anyone who is interested in knowing more about the campus and its functioning.

Outside of work, I video chat back home quite frequently; I hang out with my super awesome friends and explore Nashville, which is a very dynamic place and I feel lucky to be here. Sometimes I cook new recipes, while other times I don on an artist’s apron and paint.