By Meghan McDonald. Photography by Shawn Poynter.
Associate Professor Steven Abel uses mathematical and computational tools to study cell biology. While COVID-19 has changed the way students, professors, and staff interact, Abel has been studying a different type of interaction—between immune cells and pathogens.
His 2018 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation funds research specifically aimed at understanding T cells and B cells.
We want to know how they identify and eliminate pathogens so well. We’re not focused on a particular disease, but this is particularly relevant in the age of coronavirus.”
From his research, Abel develops physics and engineering-based theories that shed light on why lab results look like they do. “Based on that, we make predictions that experimenters can test in the laboratory,” he said.
He collaborates on other projects with experimental researchers from the UT Health Science Center and ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. In those two studies, he said, “We take the same principles we learn about cells and then design synthetic systems or objects that let us engineer interactions with biological systems.”
Abel approaches each project by “taking complicated problems and paring them down, simplifying them, but keeping their essence.”
He’s teaching students to do this in his new first-year seminar, Exploring COVID-19. He envisioned this class back in the spring, during the early days of the pandemic in the US, and worked to get it on the books. This seminar serves as an educational component of his immunology-related CAREER Award.
He started students at the molecular and cellular levels and is guiding them toward population scale. “The idea is to try to understand how the coronavirus develops, and how we can develop a vaccine,” he said.
Abel believes it’s important for engineering faculty to work in biological systems because some of the most extensive and expensive problems in upcoming decades will be related to health.
“We’re doing work that’s at the cutting edge of thinking about how cells interact, how immune cells identify pathogens. Understanding the fundamentals of these processes is going to be important for engineering solutions in healthcare or taking principles to other problems using biology.”
Abel’s most recent doctoral advisee to enter the workforce joined a pharmaceutical company that is working on coronavirus vaccines. There, he works in data science and machine learning applications for immunology. “It’s great that someone went from UT directly to the pharmaceutical industry where they’re at the cutting edge.”