May 17, 2023
Alexander Laurenson is an MD/PhD student beginning his first year of graduate school at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. In the summer of 2022, he conducted research funded by the PIDS Foundation‘s SUMMERS award and UMSOM Office of Research PRISM award under Matthew Laurens at the Malaria Research Program. His work centered around using computational programs to predict vaccine targets for malaria to design a multi-epitope-based vaccine, a project he plans to continue working on as his thesis. He has presented at multiple conferences including, St. Jude/PIDS Pediatric Infectious Diseases Research Conference and PAS.
Mr. Laurenson was introduced to the SUMMERS program through his mentor, Dr. Laurens, following his first year of medical school. Dr. Laurens shared how the program could fund research throughout the summer while providing valuable opportunities. Mr. Laurenson recognized SUMMERS as a great teaching moment to better understand his planned project and how to communicate it effectively. With encouragement from Dr. Laurens, who would serve as his PIDS research mentor on the project, he completed the “quite simple” application process and was selected for the initial cohort.
The research project involved using immunoinformatic programs to predict malaria vaccine targets for use in a multi-epitope vaccine design. Using two datasets from malaria endemic regions, Burkina Faso and Uganda, computational programs were applied to predict T-cell and B-cell epitopes with high putative receptor binding efficacy. The results found multiple epitopes that can be further investigated using in silico and in vitro methods in addition to replicating the search process amongst other available malarial sequence datasets.
Surrounded by supportive mentors and lab mates, Mr. Laurenson began to realize how much he enjoyed conducting research and being a part of the discovery process. A great sense of satisfaction came with the research. He and Dr. Laurens have continued the research project and he has presented the work on several occasions, and it was named Top Oral Abstract at this year’s St. Jude’s/PIDS conference. Mr. Laurenson hopes to make research a larger part of his future career, which will continue in the University School of Medicine’s MD/PhD program. He will start the PhD portion this fall with Dr. Laurens continuing as a mentor.
Mr. Laurenson encourages aspiring researchers to remain open to new experiences like SUMMERS or similar awards that allow an exploration of opportunities among wonderful people of different backgrounds. “There is so much to absorb and take in from the diversity of careers to the subject matter rabbit holes. My advice to mentors would be to support mentees as they explore techniques and environments that may be unfamiliar. A great mentor makes a world of difference when first exploring a field, and I am incredibly grateful to have one as supportive as Dr. Laurens.”