In our ongoing effort to catch up with our alumni, we had the chance to interview Jyothi Kumaran. Since graduating with her PhD in 2005, Jyothi has been a post-doctoral fellow in San Diego, a research associate in Ottawa and most recently, she has taken a position as a scientific associate at the UK-based biotechnology company Immunocore Ltd. in Oxford, UK.

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Jyothi Kumaran, PhD. Image credit: Charles Tran.

Born into an academic family, education was always a priority for Jyothi. After completing her undergraduate education in Biochemistry at the University of Ottawa, she moved to Toronto to do her graduate work in Immunology in Dr. Eleanor Fish’s lab.  Studying the structure-function interactions of type I interferons with their cognate receptor engaged Jyothi in techniques like 3D computer modeling and sparked further interest in protein structure and function studies. When nearing the end of her PhD, she became interested in editing and began to appy for internships with Nature Publishing Group. At the same time, not ready to leave the bench yet, she kept her options open and also applied for post-doctoral positions. As the internships at Nature Publishing Group were unpaid (and required some post-doctoral experience), she decided on a fellowship position at UCSD and moved to San Diego ready and eager to take on science full-force.

Jyothi remembers San Diego as an amazing place for science – the epicenter for molecular biology. From where she was at UCSD, Scripps, Sanford-Burnham and LIAI were all just up the road, and all of that was surrounded by a large biotechnology industry. Jyothi’s post-doctoral work involved studying the structure of a Listeria monocytogenes virulence factor bound to a host cell factor. This particular crystal structure was highly sought after and a competing lab that hadn’t published how to get optimal expression of the protein ended up publishing the structure before Jyothi could. She stuck on with the project though, looking at another domain of the same protein and how it contributed to Listeria virulence. While the project itself had many intrinsic challenges, she recalls the lab being an excellent place to work and she learned much more than she had expected to in her time at UCSD. The lab had a unique cohort of people with different backgrounds in microbiology and protein biology which made for excellent discussions and learning opportunities. After a few years, Jyothi knew it was time to start transitioning to a new postion and began applying for jobs in San Diego. However, when the economy took a turn for the worse in 2008, funding sources began to dry up in academia and applying for jobs in an oversaturated market where companies were cutting back on hiring was proving fruitless. And so, Jyothi decided to cut her losses and head back to Canada.

Back in Ottawa, Jyothi met with her 4th year project supervisor to find out if he knew of anyone hiring at the National Research Council (NRC) labs. At the time, the NRC was in a hiring freeze, but her supervisor was hiring a research associate through an adjunct affiliation with the University of Guelph and although he felt she was overqualified for the position, he hired Jyothi on the spot. The project was funded by an NSERC grant that was meant to bring together paper chemists and biologists to functionalize paper products. The technology they wanted to use was phage display – which could be adapted to ‘functionalize’ paper products. For example, an antibacterial wipe  infused with bacteriophage specific to some species of bacteria. Wiping a surface down with these wipes would infect the bacteria with the phage, leading to their destruction. Rather than bacteriophages, Jyothi worked with single domain antibodies from camel species – heavy chain only antibodies that are highly acidic and heat stable, making them extremely useful for detection assays. Some of the projects she worked on  even led to discussions of IP.

Nearing the end of her contract as a research associate in Ottawa, she decided to apply to some different positions, one of them being at Immunocore in the UK. As it turns out, Jyothi’s experience with protein structure and function relationships as well as her mastery of phage display technology in terms of antibody structure and function was a huge asset to Jyothi, giving her the edge to land the position at Immunocore. Rather than using antibodies at Immunocore, they use phage display technology with T cell receptor fragments. The TCRs bind a particular peptide-MHC and activate neighbouring CTLs via a linked soluble anti-CD3 antibody fragment.  Jyothi will be part of a team that will engineer high affinity TCRs to different antigens. As she put it, they have all the building blocks; they just need her expertise to find the right combinations. Jyothi is thrilled with the challenge that this new role poses and is excited by the science, the R&D and the opportunities it presents for her career development away from the bench.

Jyothi calls her career path “unconventional”. However, she wouldn’t change anything about how it has played out thus far. . Jyothi always felt it was important to enjoy what you do. Even as she faced challenges in her PhD and post-doctoral positions, she managed to go to the lab each day wanting to do what she did. For Jyothi, knowing that the work she will be doing at Immunocore may someday help patients drives her forward and makes it all the better when the science might get rough.

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Leesa Pennell

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