Exploring the tip of the iceberg: how I became an immunologist

BHF Professor at Queen Mary University of London is fighting transplant rejection by studying the role that inflammation plays in a number of cardiovascular diseases. Here, Professor Marelli-Berg writes about how our immune systems can predict the future, how she nearly became a psychiatrist and about all of the inspiring people she’s met throughout her scientific career so far.

My passion for immunology began during medical school. At the time immunology was a relatively ‘young’ science, and only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ had begun to emerge. I was fascinated by the complexity and perfection of a system that could only partially be defined anatomically , unlike the heart which stays put. The immune system is made up of cells called lymphocytes continuously move around our bodies interacting with other cells.

I have to confess that at the time I was also fascinated by psychiatry — who would not find the study of how the human mind works enticing? But I had to choose.

My professor of pathology at the time solved the dilemma for me. “The immune system is much superior to the brain, as it can also predict the future” he said. True — I thought — our T and B cells develop in such a way that they will be able to ‘recognize’ any pathogen, which might invade our body in the future!

After I qualified in Medicine and Surgery at the University of Milan in 1989, I continued my medical training and specialized in haematology in 1993 at the University of Pavia, Italy.

Coming to London

I came to London in 1993 with a year-long fellowship and was immediately captivated by the vibrant scientific and cultural environment. Groundbreaking discoveries were being made by eminent UK immunologists and I found a strong affinity with the British passion for archaeology and antiques.

Importantly, the UK scientific world was — and still is — full of opportunities.

It was during this year that I met the two most important men — except my dad of course — in my life. First I met my husband, who has been not only my companion but also my best friend in the last 20 years. A couple of months later, I attended a talk on transplantation tolerance by Robert Lechler and immediately decided that this was the scientific field I wanted to pursue and, of course, that I was going to do this in his lab. I am sure that Robert has had this effect on many a successful scientists both in the UK and abroad.

My PhD studies, which I completed in 1997 under his supervision, introduced me to the world of transplantation and T cell tolerance, and during these studies I developed an interest in T lymphocyte interactions with the endothelium — the lining of the blood vessels.

The world’s first heart transplant which took place in 1976

Starting a family

A couple of months after my PhD viva I had my twin girls, Alexandra and Caterina, to whom I owe my mastering the key skills of multitasking (literally!) and organised, effective management. The girls have given me so many other wonderful gifts and happiness over the years.

Knowing that they are there after a day at work has been crucial to putting things in perspective, particularly those frustrating moments when a paper or a grant application is rejected. I am sure that I would not have been able to patiently build my career without my family!

Meeting inspirational women

In 2000 I was awarded a Governors’ Lectureship by Imperial College London(ICL), and my first BHF grant! I continued my academic career at ICL to become Professor of Immunology in 2011. During these years I have been privileged by the mentorship, inspiration and friendship of eminent women scientists, including Liz Simpson and Sussan Nourshargh, and by the continuous support of the BHF, to whom I am very grateful.

Professor Sussan Nourshargh in her lab at QMUL

Once I felt that my work had reached a stage where it could lead to imminent translational outcomes in cardiovascular medicine, I joined the William Harvey Research Institute (Barts and The London SMD, QMUL) as Professor of Cardiovascular Immunology in November 2011.

Fulfilling a life long ambition

Becoming a BHF Professor is a life long ambition for many scientists and I consider myself extremely privileged to have been given such a prestigious award.

I have always conducted my research with passion and this funding, made possible by the generous donations made to the BHF, will allow me to see my work translated into real benefits for patients. I am very grateful to the BHF, and its supporters, for investing in me and my research and I am determined to ‘make a difference’ for those patients suffering from myocarditis and heart transplant rejection.

Find out more about Professor Marelli-Berg’s research.