A Conversation with 2022 Pew Scholar, Dr. Amelia Escolano

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By Emily Brooks

Dr. Amelia Escolano, an Assistant Professor at The Wistar Institute’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, has been chosen to join the 2022 Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences for her groundbreaking research on HIV vaccines. This highly competitive honor not only provides Escolano with funding to pursue her research, but it also provides her the opportunity to work with other highly talented researchers at an annual Pew Scholars conference. 

Global Philadelphia had the opportunity to speak with Escolano about this honor, her work, and how it will impact global health. She also spoke about her global background and who has inspired her throughout her career. 

“I never had to think about what I wanted to be in the future or in my life. I always knew that I wanted to do science,” stated Escolano. Since childhood, she has always studied science and eventually earned her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. Even though HIV vaccine research is different from what she had focused on for her PhD, this study does not intimidate her. “The PhD gives you the tools to face potential challenges no matter what field it is.” 

“I saw all the cool stuff that they were doing, about HIV vaccine design, and I was fascinated by that,” said Escolano when describing her time at Dr. Michel Nussenzweig’s lab at The Rockefeller University. Before then, she had only known HIV as a virus, but not much more. Since then she has made great strides in HIV vaccine research, and looking back on it now, she feels as if she came in at just the right time as new techniques and discoveries were advancing the field. 

“[Our team] was the first ones actually showing that broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV could be induced by vaccination,” Escolano commented on their method of sequential immunization. “Sequential immunization means that we first inject a protein of HIV, which is very engineered, and then some time after we inject a second version of this protein, which is slightly different to the previous one. And then we come with a third one, which is slightly different to the previous one. So, we repeat these [steps].” This method is very different from the science provided regarding COVID vaccines, as patients are being injected with the same vaccine repeatedly. 

“[This method of vaccination will force] an antibody response to evolve in such a way, so that the antibodies can eventually neutralize and block many different strains of a virus,” stated Escolano. Currently, The Wistar Lab has been successful in producing antibody responses in animals, and with her grant, Escolano can continue this research, eventually testing the response in humans.   

Escolano’s research is so important for global health as it can not only apply to HIV vaccines but can also be used to design vaccines for other viruses, such as COVID-19, and even mutating bacteria and cancer. As these diseases are some of the largest threats to global health, effective vaccines are the first line of defense. 

“Basically, we are here, thanks to vaccines,” Escolano stated on the importance of vaccinations. She touched on the fact that people have died throughout history from dangerous pathogens, and vaccines have eradicated those diseases. Through continuing to develop vaccine technology, she states that “vaccines will play an important role in preventing the spread of current pathogens and also for the control of potential future pandemics, which I'm sure will happen again, very soon.” 

“It's not about the money; the funds that they provide to support our science. It's more about the opportunity to interact with this fantastic community of scientists from different parts of the country,” replied Escolano when asked about the honor of being chosen as a Pew Scholar. She is excited for the chance to work with scientists from different fields, stating, “Combining expertise … creates a very interesting niche, and a very interesting area to come up with new ideas and new research.” 

Before coming to the United States, Escolano had the opportunity to study in many different places, including her home country of Spain, then to Finland for her first abroad experience before finally coming to the United States to study and work. She remembers this time fondly and learned more than just about science through this experience. 

“​​I suddenly saw that I could just go wherever I wanted, and it was fine. And I had nothing to fear and there were all these different people that thought like me, in different ways, and it was just a very, very good experience” commented Escolano. Once she landed a spot in Nussenzweig’s lab at The Rockefeller University, she felt as if she fit right in and was glad she had left her hometown to explore new experiences. This is something she encourages for others as well, telling people to “just leave your comfort zone, and go explore other environments and get to know other people.” 

“People have to see that you achieve your goals, that you are not afraid of anything, and that you are capable, and then there is no limit,” said Escolano. She encourages young girls to pursue science, stating “I think that the best way to advocate for women in science and STEM is just with your own example.” She believes that she sets an example through her work and hopes someone finds it fascinating and sees that they are capable of similar success. 

When asked about who her own inspirations were growing up, she pointed to both her teachers and her parents, who are both chemists. Even now, she is still in contact with her teachers and has made sure to thank them for their impact and inspiration. 

Not only is Escolano studying HIV vaccines, but she has shown interest in learning more about immunology in general. Through her work, vaccinations in the future will provide protection for longer periods of time and they will become more effective against various strands of diseases. She’s an example for all younger scientists through her accomplishments and is someone to follow over the next few years as her research continues.

Cover Photo Courtesy of the Wistar Institute Website
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