By Abby Weingarten
New College alumna Alexandria Wells, Ph.D. ’10, has been working as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)—a center directed by Dr. Anthony Fauci—since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
One of 27 institutes that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the NIAID in Bethesda, Maryland, is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Fauci, a prominent medical figure during the current health crisis, has been its director since 1984.
Wells, 28, is beyond proud to work under Dr. Fauci’s leadership. She recently posted a comment on Twitter about it.
“Just so everyone knows: Fauci cookies are a thing, and I am now in possession of some,” Wells wrote, with an accompanying image of Dr. Fauci-inspired treats. “So proud of my boss and institute! #TeamFauci.”
Dr. Fauci has advised six presidents on HIV and AIDS (as well as numerous other global health issues), and oversees the NIAID’s efforts to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases. Wells has been with the NIAID for a little less than a year, conducting research in the laboratory of Yasmine Belkaid, Ph.D.
Wells completed her Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology in March 2019 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and earned a bachelor of arts degree in biology/chemistry from New College in 2014. Originally from Fort Myers, Wells decided to attend New College after reading Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as a high school student.
“As an example of the implementation of the theories described in the novel (learning for learning’s sake, taking grades out of the equation, etc.), our teacher mentioned New College,” Wells said. “I looked into it and was sold immediately. I only wanted to attend New College.”
Wells studied with New College Professor of Biology Amy Clore, Ph.D., and wrote a thesis entitled Sorting Through the MUC: A Characterization of MUC1 in Acquired Chemoresistance in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. Wells received the New College International Baccalaureate Affinity Scholarship and the New College Presidential Merit Scholarship, and was the chair of New College’s student government. Wells later earned multiple accolades for her work, including the American Association of Immunologists’ Young Investigator Award in 2016 and 2017.
She is now immersed in the most significant medical research in the world.
“As it currently stands, I am focused on understanding how the microbiome (the consortia of bacteria that exist symbiotically in and on our bodies) poises the immune system to efficiently protect against pathogen encounters,” Wells said. “I have to say, being in Dr. Fauci’s Institute has been challenging during this time, because we are expected to set the example for how non-essential researchers should respond during this pandemic.”
All non-COVID-19 research has been frozen, Wells said, and she has been working from home. But any interaction she has had with Dr. Fauci has brought her continued optimism and motivation.
“Having Dr. Fauci as our director has been the honest upside to all of this. Seeing how hard he is working, especially despite all the recent negativity from various politicians, is really inspiring,” Wells said. “He recently held a town hall with us, where he answered questions we had regarding going back to work and the virus itself. Throughout the whole exchange, he had an incredibly positive attitude that has really radiated through the rest of the Institute. It’s almost impossible to not feel better about things after interacting with him, even through a virtual town hall.”
While the pandemic has undoubtedly shaken up her research, Wells’ experience at the NIAID during the crisis has presented some inspiring challenges.
“I think one of the most exciting parts is that we are studying the non-classical functions of the immune system, and beginning to learn what the immune system does when our body is not fighting an infection,” Wells said. “We are now realizing that the immune system is in constant dialogue with networks we previously thought the immune system was agnostic to, including the microbiota and the nervous system. It’s really at the forefront of the current immunology field.”
Lab experiments on the path to successful outcomes can be tedious, but Wells is tenacious in her research.
“I’ve spent nearly eight months trying to develop a new method and it still isn’t working,” Wells said. “But once we establish these new methods, it opens so many doors for us. And honestly, that high you get when finally succeeding after so many failures is one of the things I love most about science.”
The perseverance and self-reliance she learned at New College, Wells said, was instrumental in grooming her for this pursuit.
“I think the training we received in our classes at New College was really well-designed to translate into the career path that I’ve chosen. The independent learning and critical thinking that was integrated into so many of the courses I took have been immensely helpful,” Wells said. “Being independent while still being able to seek advice and communicate your ideas to others is a major theme in scientific research, and I think New College was uniquely poised to prepare me for that.”
Wells expects to continue her postdoctoral work for about five years. Her ultimate goal is to become an independent investigator and open her own research lab at a university.
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.