Research Spotlight: Dr. Melissa Kemp

In our conversation, Dr. Melissa Kemp prefaced discussion of her research with a quick description of an up-and-coming field dubbed ‘immunoengineering’ of which she and her colleagues are helping to explore. The basis of Immunoengineering is the usage of real-time cell modeling techniques to better understand the effect a particular cell process can have on overall cell function. For instance, at the Suddath Symposium, a gathering focused on bringing together immunoengineers for collaboration and sharing of ideas, Dr. Kemp presented her research on “Computational Approaches for Interrogating ROS/Calcium Crosstalk in T Cells.” This use of modeling techniques to better quantify and classify cell behavior can, in turn, lead to a wide variety of applications in health and disease research.

Dr. Kemp’s research focuses on the cell’s capacity to adapt to foreign presences in the body. In particular, Dr. Kemp tests the effects of reactive oxygen species, super oxides, free radicals, and many other variables to determine how well the protein circuitry in cells can seek peptides on the surface of foreign cells, bind to these cells, and interpret the signal being conveyed by the binding itself. Testing these cells in an experimental setting has proven difficult because they move around so much, so Dr. Kemp and her team have built custom-made chips that serve as traps so the cells can be held still and observed during experimentation. These chips are filled with elaborately detailed and delicate mazes cut specifically to trap the different cells Dr. Kemp’s lab works with. The information gathered from these traps allows a model to be built of how the proteins behave. The goal of these models is to build a greater understanding of how the extremely complex and diverse immune system works, an understanding that may be invaluable in the future development of techniques to battle autoimmune and infectious diseases.

After discussing how a desire to overcome weakness often leads to a person’s career goal choice, Dr. Kemp gave some tips to undergraduates interested in research. The most important qualities Dr. Kemp looks for in students who desire to work in her lab is a strong commitment to the work, the ability to prioritize, and a knack for time management. Our conversation ended on a lighter note with a fun tidbit about Dr. Kemp: though all of her work is based on computational modeling and simulations, she has a bit of trouble retaining phone numbers or any string of numbers of that ilk. Regardless, the research that Dr. Kemp and her colleagues are conducting in the field of immunoengineering today will surely help pave the way for innovative medical solutions in the future.