Immunology is a rapidly growing area within the field of biomedical science, which spans everything from teaching the body how to ward off certain diseases to developing antibodies to protect against others. Significant advances in technology — paired with understanding the complexities of the immune system and its role in human health and disease — have accelerated efforts to manage and treat diseases such as cancer, asthma and allergies, and even slow the progression of other diseases like Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
The Immunology Track of the Ph.D. Program at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences trains scientists who aspire to become independent investigators heading their own research programs as well as to train the next generation of leaders in biomedical science, with expertise in immunology.
As a student, you will benefit from a highly interactive, productive research environment that offers the opportunity to learn from dedicated mentors, including 34 faculty-headed laboratories conducting basic and translational immunology research in a wide variety of areas relevant to human disease.
There is a strong esprit de corps among immunology students, faculty and staff that drives discoveries in immunology through basic and translational research in five areas:
- Mechanisms of immunity and inflammation (genetics, cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry in model systems)
- Immune-mediated disease (hypersensitivity, autoimmunity, inflammation)
- Vaccines and immune-based therapies (cancer immunotherapy, allergy, infectious disease, autoimmunity, tolerance)
- Regenerative immunity (immune reconstitution, transplant tolerance, immune-mediated regeneration)
- Patient-oriented research (patient studies, therapeutic trials)
This program focuses on preparing you for a successful scientific career as a leader in academia or industry. You begin by participating in various laboratory rotations, after which time you’ll choose a thesis mentor for three to five years of thesis research. During your time in the program, you’ll publish peer-reviewed original research papers, develop public speaking and teaching skills, learn to write scientific grant proposals and papers, and present at national conferences.
Required coursework provides a critical intellectual foundation. Graduate courses on biochemistry, cell biology and molecular biology are complemented by immunology coursework providing robust education in all areas of modern immunology research relevant to human disease. A comprehensive graduate immunology course is followed by six advanced immunology tutorial courses in which you actively read and discuss the literature with faculty working in those areas.
All students are provided with funds to attend the American Association of Immunologists (AAI) Advanced Course in Immunology. Three immunology journal clubs and the immunology seminar series keep you abreast of new discoveries. Electives permit you to tailor your education by selecting courses such as grant writing, biostatistics, clinical trial design, advanced flow cytometry, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapies, and regenerative medicine, as well as any of the many courses offered by the pharmacology, neuroscience, virology, physiology, and biomedical engineering departments.
You begin the program in July by attending a series of lunch presentations that introduce you to potential lab mentors.
Within a few weeks, you select the first of your three lab rotations where you’ll spend at least eight weeks participating in a research project. You have the opportunity to learn more about departmental labs via poster sessions throughout the summer and fall during Mayo Clinic’s Summer Research Symposium, Immunology Department Retreat, and Graduate Student Symposium.
In October, you begin your second lab rotation; your third lab rotation starts in January. In the spring, you choose your thesis laboratory and thesis mentor from among your three lab rotations.
You take classes in conjunction with your lab rotations, the majority of which are completed during Year 1, which includes most biomedical science required courses, the comprehensive basic graduate immunology course, one to two journal club courses, and three advanced immunology tutorials.
At the end of Year 1, all students are funded to travel and attend the week-long Advanced Course in Immunology sponsored by the American Association of Immunologists (AAI).
Starting in Year 2, your primary activity is working in the thesis laboratory focusing on acquiring preliminary data for your thesis research project. You’ll also complete remaining coursework, attend seminars and journal clubs, and present and discuss your preliminary research results at national conferences and campus poster sessions.
Near the end of Year 2, you’ll take the immunology written qualifying exam, preceded by the immunology oral exam. The immunology qualifying exams test your knowledge of biomedical science and basic immunology. The qualifying exams also evaluate your skills in critical thinking and experimental design in the key immunology research areas covered by the six advanced immunology tutorial courses.
Year 3 primarily consists of thesis research and participating in activities designed to help you learn how to organize, summarize, and critically discuss research results in a scientific manner. Scientific writing and critical thinking skills are developed as you work with your thesis mentors to plan and draft research papers.
Near the beginning of Year 3, and after you’ve passed the written and oral qualifying exams, you and your lab mentor will select five to six faculty members to serve on your Thesis Advisory Committee (TAC). You’ll write a thesis proposal based on your preliminary data to share at your first TAC meeting, preceded by additional TAC meetings about every six months thereafter where you’ll presents slides and discuss your research progress.
Near the end of Year 3, you’ll present a 50-minute Work-In-Progress (WIP) seminar before the entire department, during which you’ll describe your thesis research background, proposed directions, and current results. Frequent oral presentations during classes prepare you to excel at these WIP presentations, which should be presented once each year. You’ll further learn to discuss your research ideas and results via poster and oral presentations throughout the year, both on campus and during national meetings.
During Year 3, you’re encouraged to write and submit an NIH predoctoral fellowship grant application, as well as participate in workshops and courses to learn about and practice grant writing.
Year 4 and subsequent years are used to complete your thesis research project. Generating research publications and presenting research abstracts at national meetings is the focus of these years. To stay abreast of the current literature, you’re encouraged to attend departmental seminars and journal club. You’re also encouraged to develop a detailed post-graduate career plan with advice from your mentor and TAC, which include a Career Development Internship.
Graduation generally occurs in Years 5 or 6. Initiating the graduation process requires approval by your TAC, who will instruct you to begin writing a scholarly dissertation that introduces, summarizes, and discusses your thesis research results.
After submitting your dissertation, your defense is scheduled. This consists of a 50-minute seminar before the department where you’ll describe your research results, followed by an oral defense. Both the dissertation and the defense must be approved by the TAC, at which time the Ph.D. degree is conferred.
Students who graduate at any time during the previous year are invited to return to Rochester, Minnesota, to participate in the annual Mayo Clinic doctoral student graduation ceremony and celebration each May.
Research opportunities in the Department of Immunology can be broadly divided into four overlapping subtracks:
- Cancer immunology and immunotherapy. Clinical applications and basic research on tumor immunology and tumor immune therapy, including anti-tumor vaccines. Includes CAR T cells, PD-1 and other immune therapies.
- Autoimmunity and immune-mediated diseases. Clinical and basic research on the immune mechanisms of viral and bacterial diseases, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, allergy and asthma, and gut microbiome.
- Molecular biology and signaling in immune activation. The receptors and intracellular signaling pathways that control immune cell proliferation, metastasis, migration and apoptosis. Includes systems biology, RNA sequencing data analysis and biomarker development.
- Immune system development and regeneration. The molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in differentiation of immune cells in the thymus and bone marrow including T and B lymphocytes, eosinophils, NK cells and dendritic cells. Includes hematologic malignancies, immune deficiencies, the bone marrow microenvironment and stem cell therapies.
Although they each have independent research laboratories, our faculty have created a highly interactive research environment for students with many opportunities for both formal and informal interactions. In particular, the entire department comes together several times each month to hear presentations by the department's students and faculty as well as invited distinguished researchers.
Recent thesis topics
- “Manipulating the Bone Marrow Microenvironment in Hematological Malignancy,” Rosalie M. Sterner, M.D.-Ph.D. Program (Mentor: Karen E. Hedin, Ph.D.)
- “Staphylococcus Epidermidis Interactions with the Human Host that Permit Evasion of Immune Killing,” Kimberley Perez, Ph.D. (Mentor: Robin Patel, M.D.)
- “The Impact of Cell-Specific Deletion of MHC I in Generating CD8 T cell Responses in the Central Nervous System,” Courtney Malo, Ph.D. (Mentor: Aaron J. Johnson, Ph.D.)
- "Breaking Tolerance with Engineered Class I Antigen Presenting Molecules," Christopher A. Parks, Ph.D. (Mentor: Larry R. Pease, Ph.D.)
- “The Role of TCR-mediated TCR-CXCR4 Complex Formation in Cytokine Production by T Cells,” Brittney A. Dinkel, Ph.D. (Mentor: Karen E. Hedin, Ph.D.)
- “Combination Vesicular Stomatitis Virus Immunotherapy to Improve Treatment Outcomes in a Mouse Model of Metastatic Melanoma," Kevin G. Shim, M.D.-Ph.D. Program (Mentor: Richard G. Vile, Ph.D.)
- "Immunology of Nodal Metastases: The Role of Extracellular Vesicles," Rachel L. Maus (Goldenstein), Ph.D. (Mentor: Svetomir N. Markovic, M.D., Ph.D.)
- "Mechanisms of CD8 T Cell-Mediated Blood-Brain Barrier Disruption in Experimental Cerebral Malaria," Matthew A. Huggins, Ph.D. (Mentor: Aaron J. Johnson, Ph.D.)
- "Defining T Cell: Neuronal Interactions Through Conditional Expression of Major Histocompatibility Complex Class I & II," April M. Huseby Kelcher, Ph.D. (Mentor: Aaron J. Johnson, Ph.D.)
- "Stable Inter-Individual Immune Variability Reveals Baseline Phenotypic Groupings of Individuals that Inform Responsiveness to Immune Perturbation," Adam D. Scheid, Ph.D. (Mentor: Larry R. Pease, Ph.D.)
- "Roles of IL-33 in Allergic Immune Response and Its Regulatory Mechanisms," Erik L. Anderson, Ph.D. (Mentor: Hirohito Kita, M.D.)
- "The Innate and Adaptive Immune Regulation of Allergic Airway Inflammation," Chien-Chang Chen, Ph.D. (Mentor: Hirohito Kita, M.D.)
- "Understanding Eosinophil Biology and Disease Activities Through Genetically Engineered Mice," Alfred D. Doyle, Ph.D. (Mentor: James J. Lee, Ph.D.)
- "An IL-10 and PD-1 Circuit Inhibits Anti-Tumor Immunity in Ovarian Cancer," Purushottam Lamichhane, Ph.D. (Mentor: Keith L. Knutson, Ph.D.)
- "Multiprotein Matrix Analysis Reveals Physiologic Network Biosignatures from the Human TCR Signalosome," Steven C. Neier, Ph.D. (Mentor: Adam G. Schrum, Ph.D.)
- "Protein Folding in Engineered Ligands and Physiological TCR:CD3 Complexes," Brendan K. Reed, Ph.D. (Mentor: Adam G. Schrum, Ph.D.)
- "The Role of NKAP in iNKT Cell Biology," Puspa Thapa, Ph.D. (Mentor: Virginia M. Shapiro, Ph.D.)
- "Co-Potentiation of Antigen Recognition: A Novel Mechanism to Boost Weak T Cell Antigen Recognition and Provide Immunotherapy in Vivo," Michele M. Hoffmann, Ph.D. (Mentor: Diana Gil Pages, Ph.D.)
- "Innate Lymphoid Cells: At the Crossroads of Tissue Homeostasis and Immune Response," Kathleen R. Bartemes, Ph.D. (Mentor: Hirohito Kita, M.D.)
- "The Role of CAML in T Cell Biology," Siaw Li Chan, Ph.D. (Mentor: Richard J. Bram, M.D. Ph.D.)
- "Pancreatic Inflammation is Controlled by CD8 T Cells and Induces Extrapancreatic Insulin Expression," Megan A. Girtman, Ph.D. (Mentor: Larry R. Pease, Ph.D.)
- "Elucidating the Roles of Dedicator of Cytokinesis 8 (DOCK8) in NK Cell Cytotoxicity," Hyoung-Jun Ham, Ph.D. (Mentor: Daniel D. Billadeau, Ph.D.)
- "Inflammatory Connections: The Role of Reactive Oxygen Species and Macrophages in Renal Artery Stenosis," Stella P. Hartono, M.D.- Ph.D. Program (Mentor: Karen E. Hedin, Ph.D.)
- “IQGAP1 Regulation of the Cytoskeleton: Critical Regulation of CXCR4 Trafficking and Signaling in Cancer Cells,” Adebowale O. Bamidele, Ph.D. (Mentor: Karen E. Hedin, Ph.D.)
Learning to be an investigator in an intensely translational and clinical environment provides students with a bent toward translational science. As a result, many graduates of the Immunology Track hold faculty appointments in basic and clinical departments of major medical institutions. More than 95 percent of our graduates are engaged in biomedical science careers.
Meet the director
The field of immunology is coming of age. We’re entering a time when fundamental understanding of the immune system is being applied rationally to the treatment of disease, and Mayo Clinic is at the cutting edge of this translational research.
The Department of Immunology offers research opportunities from molecules to humans and everything in between — we’re positioned to take advantage of the unique opportunities that come from being part of a premier medical institution.
We invite you to become a part of this exciting field!
Aaron Johnson, Ph.D.
Immunology Track Director
Professor of Immunology