December 03, 2019

DHVI Staff Spotlight

A feature to highlight DHVI employees and the work they do

Maria Blasi, PhD 

Assistant Professor in Medicine
Co-Director, DHVI Training and Mentoring Program

Dr. Maria Blasi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at Duke University Medical Center and Co-Director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute Mentoring and Training Program (DTMP). She completed her undergraduate and Ph.D. studies in Italy at the Sapienza University in Rome. Dr. Blasi moved to Durham for a postdoctoral position in Dr. Mary Klotman’s (currently Dean of the School of Medicine) laboratory, at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. Her research interests focus on two major priorities in the HIV-1 field: vaccine development and latent reservoirs/ cure studies.  Dr. Blasi's work encompasses several aspects of HIV-1 research, ranging from designing and testing a novel vaccine platform based on an integrase defective lentiviral vector (IDLV) in non-human primates (NHP), to the study of the kidney as a non-canonical reservoir for HIV-1. 
 
As Co-Director of the DHVI Training and Mentoring Program (DTMP), Dr. Blasi oversees 30 plus undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral trainees. She works alongside co-director, Dr. Wilton Williams, to develop trainees into successful and independent scientific professionals through mentorship, customized curricula and collaborations. The goal of the DTMP is to expand each trainee's knowledge base and confidence through the use of educational studies and technology.
 
We met with Dr. Blasi to learn about her work and the DHVI Training and Mentoring Program.
 
Dr. Blasi, will you tell us about your work and how you got into HIV-1 vaccine development?

I started working on the development and characterization of lentivirus-based integrase defective vectors (IDLVs) as a graduate student at the Italian National Institute of Health (ISS) in Rome. During this time, I became increasingly interested in the use of IDLV as a vaccine platform and I was able to pursue this interest during my postdoctoral training at Duke University. As a post-doctoral fellow in Dr Klotman’s laboratory, I have also been working on understanding the role of the kidney in HIV infection and its possible role as a HIV reservoir. HIV persists indefinitely in infected individuals despite near complete suppression of virus replication with antiretroviral therapy (ART). HIV infected individuals reliably exhibit viral rebound when ART is interrupted. Understanding the contribution of the different cell types infected by the virus is crucial to the development of strategies that can eradicate the virus from the body of infected individuals.
 
You were mentored under Dr. Klotman in the DHVI Mentoring and Training Program. How was your experience in the program? What did you find most beneficial to your research?

As an international student/postdoc coming from a country with a different culture and speaking a different language I was afraid that I would not fit in and that I would not be able to succeed in an unfamiliar setting. The training program was there to support me by facilitating interactions and collaborations with my peers and by teaching me how to effectively communicate my work to the scientific community. Knowing that I had a group of people to rely on during the ups and downs of science was probably the most beneficial aspect.
 
As Co-Director of the DTMP, how have you used your experience as a trainee to mentor young scientists?

There are some common issues that we all face as scientists and by sharing experiences I faced as a trainee with others I hope to positively impact careers and quell any possible concerns those younger than me may have. For example, one thing that I used to do during my first years of training was overload myself with experiments, leaving little time for reading and writing. I keep telling our trainees that although doing experiments can be more exciting than sitting at their desk and writing, they have to balance both and make sure their work gets out there. That is also the goal of our weekly journal club meetings, where we encourage trainees to present new discoveries and keep up with the literature. Being able to pass along all the things that I have learned during my training, both the do’s and don’t’s of science, is very rewarding to me and hopefully helps others be more successful.

What advice can you share with new trainees or those looking to follow a similar path?

If you are excited about coming to work and can’t wait to see the results of your experiments, then you are on the right track. This is work that is best done together, so always ask for help and collaborate. Believe in your abilities and keep challenging yourself!
 
Science is an always changing and hard work. What keeps you motivated and focused?

I always say that to do this job you have to love it, as science can be frustrating sometimes. I am very passionate about my research and I believe that what I do will have an impact on human health. The field of HIV research is very challenging. What could be more exciting than that?

Interested in learning more about the DTMP? Click here.