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Featured Research Trainee: Allergy Bioinformatics With Megha Lal, PhD
Editor’s Note: Our Featured Research Trainee for August is Megha Lal, PhD. Dr. Lal is a postdoctoral fellow at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the Division of Allergy and Immunology, under the mentorship of Melanie Ruffner, MD, PhD. In this Q&A, Dr. Lal discusses her research, her experiences at CHOP, and her leadership roles.
Can you tell us about the degrees you have earned, and where you went to school?
I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Delhi in India and earned my doctorate in July 2020 from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, where I studied the impact and regulation of imprinted microRNA clusters in human cancer using bioinformatic approaches.
What is a research project you are working on, and why is it important?
I investigate the mechanism of less common forms of food allergies, particularly eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE). EoE is a chronic, allergic inflammatory disease of the esophageal mucosa. While type 2 cytokines are predominant, targeting type 2 inflammation alone is not always an effective treatment for all patients.
One of my research projects involves combining computational approaches and experimental assays to investigate novel genes and pathways impacting EoE. Our findings demonstrate that stimulation of esophageal epithelial cells with interferon‐gamma (IFN-γ) leads to disruption of tissue differentiation, epithelial barrier integrity, and potentiated cytotoxicity, which are relevant features of EoE immunopathology.
The project has received recognition for its merit both at CHOP and beyond. It was selected as “Best Poster” at CHOP Poster Day 2023, and I also had the privilege of delivering an oral presentation at the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies’ 2023 Annual Meeting. Currently, the manuscript related to this project is under review by a prominent scientific journal.
In addition, I am investigating the epigenetic regulation of epithelial barrier function in EoE. We hypothesize that the inflammatory milieu stimulates epigenetic changes that trigger the clinical manifestations observed in food allergies. Here, I simultaneously profile gene expression and accessible chromatin in both EoE patients and in-vitro cytokine-stimulated 3D models. The aim is to construct a plausible cellular trajectory that might help us in deciphering the mechanism of disease progression.
Moreover, I collaborate with various members of our lab, serving as the primary bioinformatics resource, to support and contribute to other ongoing projects. These research efforts are vital for improving our understanding of non-immunoglobin E-mediated food allergies and developing better ways to diagnose and treat patients.
What are some of the most salient training experiences you have had at CHOP thus far?
In terms of training experiences, I completed a semester-long DIY Transcriptomics course at the University of Pennsylvania. I also participated in the NIH-funded CHOP Data and Analytics for Research Training pilot program.
Taking advantage of the tuition benefits offered at CHOP, I am currently pursuing a master’s in bioinformatics from New York University. Looking ahead, I want to be employed as a bioinformatics specialist engaged in the analysis and interpretation of biomedical data and actively develop analysis pipelines and software.
These research experiences are providing me with in-depth knowledge and practical training to excel in the field of bioinformatics. I am confident that these endeavors will position me for future opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the analysis and interpretation of biomedical data.
Aside from research, what do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment lies in my leadership roles. Over the past year, I have been leading the CHOP Postdoctoral Alliance (CPA) Women in Science Committee, during which I have provided oversight and guidance for committee activities. Recently, I have been appointed as the co-chair of CPA, allowing me to continue advocating for diversity and inclusion in scientific fields.
Currently, I serve as the project manager at STEMPeers, an initiative aimed at providing career support and guidance to fellow doctorial students. STEMPeers is a registered nonprofit organization with over 20,000 members. I co-organized the STEMPeers annual conference in 2022, and I am currently involved in organization efforts for the upcoming 2023 conference.
I am a proactive member of the National Postdoc Association (NPA). As an International Taskforce member, I collaborate on projects that address issues and develop strategies to enhance the experience of international postdocs. I also serve as a committee member for the NPA 2024 organization team for workshop/proposal and communication subcommittees, and I frequently contribute to the NPA PostDocket Journal.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I am an inquisitive person who finds immense satisfaction in learning and discovering new things. During my free time, I read thrillers or mysteries and enjoy dancing. I recently took belly dancing classes and had the opportunity to perform at Philadelphia Dance Day. It was an exhilarating experience. I also find pleasure in traveling and exploring new destinations.