Although the COVID-19 pandemic meant a temporary shut down for her mentor’s lab, Sara Suliman, PhD, MPH, knew that she needed to use her expertise to continue working and help advance COVID research. Suliman, a former postdoctoral fellow and current junior faculty at the Moody laboratory with expertise in the immunobiology of infectious diseases, is applying her previous experience investigating tuberculosis to inform COVID diagnostics and make global connections among her current and previous colleagues.
“I do science from a heart space, and right now this is my passion, and this is where my skills are needed,” said Suliman. “It makes sense to put those skills into a useful application.”
Before the Brigham
After studying biomedical sciences in college, Suliman became interested in hematology and oncology, so she pursued her PhD at a leukemia lab in the University of Toronto. Suliman studied T cells, white blood cells that are an important part of the immune system. By the end of her PhD, she realized she enjoyed studying host pathogen interactions more than cancer immunology. So, she completed her first postdoctoral fellowship at the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative in Cape Town while also doing her MPH online.
In Cape Town, Suliman worked on tuberculosis biomarkers, which are measurable medical signs that indicate tuberculosis. She had an interest in innate T cells–T cells that quickly reach full activation and have a robust acute response–and investigated them as novel targets for tuberculosis vaccination.
TB and T Cells
Suliman moved to the Brigham after her time in South Africa for a second postdoctoral fellowship with D. Branch Moody, MD. At the Brigham, Suliman focused on MAIT cells, T cells that respond to metabolites in the vitamin B2 metabolism pathway, as a tuberculosis target. She also investigated the genetic associations of tuberculosis. She appreciates the opportunities the Brigham has to offer.
“If you need a skillset in anything, you can just knock on someone’s door,” said Suliman. “There are phenomenal bioinformaticians, geneticists, immunologists and core facilities, which gives me no excuse to do poor quality research.”
Suliman is now a junior investigator and instructor in medicine under her supervisor, Dr. Moody. She is applying for grants to further study innate immunity and tuberculosis, and eventually wants to start her own group. However, her plans changed with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suliman’s lab research was temporarily shut down like many others, but she realized her background in biomarkers, diagnostics and public health could be put to good use.
Response to the Pandemic
Suliman responded to the pandemic by volunteering on the validation committee at The Diagnostics Pillar of the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation (MGBCCI). As part of this effort, she and other scientists have been evaluating promising diagnostics for COVID-19. Suliman eventually became the leader of her validation group and merged it with The Diagnostics Accelerator team, which she now co-leads with Lauren Ritterhouse, MD, PhD, associate director of the Center for Integrated Diagnostics at MGH.
“Right now, we’re in the process of cross evaluating different diagnostic assays that measure antibody responses to COVID-19,” she said. “Those assays give us insight into whether people have been exposed and what the prevalence in the population is.”
Suliman also works with the MGBCCI on advanced molecular diagnostics, where the focus is on detection of the viral infection and evaluation of the most promising assays for field implementation. Suliman works with the global implementation group, involving her network of scientists from several African countries.
While Suliman is glad that she and other specialists have been able to redirect their efforts to help with the pandemic, she also recognizes that siphoning attention and resources from other infectious diseases has an unfortunate consequence.
“It’s helped that there is a lot of infrastructure to deal with other diseases that can be redeployed for COVID-19, but it also means that those resources are now diverted from those other applications,” said Suliman. “Globally, tuberculosis care and research have been suffering because scientists who work on tuberculosis are exactly the kind of scientists we need to work on COVID-19.”
Suliman has also learned from her experience with the pandemic that when there is political will and resources, science moves more quickly, making her wonder why the process has been so slow with other diseases.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is shining more light on the fact that there are diseases of poverty that don’t get as much attention because they have not impacted certain privileged segments of society,” said Suliman. “It makes you question if all the barriers we experience studying other diseases were necessary in the first place.”
Moving Forward During a Movement
While the pandemic has been on Suliman’s mind, she is also paying attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and thinking about how racism and unconscious biases have impacted her work surrounding COVID-19.
“I am a black woman who feels a lack of representation,” said Suliman. “If you look at public statements about COVID-19 and who is invited to speak on the issues, it’s mostly white men. This sends a message that the expertise comes from specific demographics, regardless of who’s impacted by the pandemic and who actually has the expertise.”
Even though the majority of project managers at The Diagnostics Accelerator are women, Suliman observes that the male voices tend to be louder due to unconscious bias. Rather than upholding measures that would ensure equity and representation of women, the focus in COVID-19 work has been on moving forward as quickly as possible. Consequently, unconscious biases are exacerbated because there is less time to reflect on the optics of having mostly white men being represented in the media.
“This work is happening while there is a revolution outside about racism and police brutality against black people, so doing this work, there’s a part of me that’s distracted and equally passionately invested in that movement,” she said. “As a result, I’m not always fully present when I’m doing science. That’s an impact that must be addressed. It requires some critical thinking and compassion for the scientists who are invested in the movement while trying to help out with the pandemic.”