Interview of Caroline L. Sokol, MD, PhD
Dr. Sokol, is an allergist/immunologist and physician-scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital. She spends about 80% of her time running a laboratory, about 10% doing clinical work and the last 10% mentoring physician-scientist trainees as the Co-Director of the Physician-Scientist Pathway within the Internal Medicine Residency Program. The other major part of her life is her family – her husband and two boys (4 and 6 years old) and, although she admits it’s probably sacrilegious as an allergist, two cats that are permitted into her bedroom.
The AAAAI Foundation & Dr. Donald Y. M. Leung/ JACI Editors Faculty Development Award
Institution: Massachusetts General Hospital Allergy Associates
Project: Innate Immune Control of Th2 Differentiation
Award Term: 2019-2022
What is the goal of your research?
The goal of my research is to figure out how the allergic immune response is initiated. Between 30 and 40% of the U.S. population suffers from allergic diseases that are driven by immune responses to simple, non-infectious environmental proteins. Why is that? We don’t know the answer, partially because we don’t know how allergens are recognized by the immune system or even what cells of the immune system are responsible for this recognition. It’s our goal to elucidate these early recognition and activation steps so we can better understand how to treat and prevent allergic diseases.
What made you decide to go into medical research?
As a kid, I was always the annoying one that kept asking “why?” As I grew up and became more interested in medicine, I found myself fascinated by the immune system. How is it that all of these different cells can find their way together to identify invaders, target and eliminate them and help to heal the body? And how do these processes “go wrong” to lead to immune diseases like autoimmunity and allergy? There are endless questions that are waiting to be answered in immunology and I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling or exciting than getting to discover these fundamental mechanisms driving human health and disease.
I love seeing patients, but there is nothing more frustrating for me than saying, “I don’t know” or “I can’t help.” Medical research gives me the ability to say, “I don’t know now, but maybe soon we’ll know the answer.” In the end, my love of asking questions, the thrill of discovery, and my sincere hope to push our knowledge forward made entering medical research an obvious decision for me.
What are your future research and career goals?
My laboratory is fundamentally focused on how the innate immune system recognizes allergens, is activated by allergens and initiates what we think of as the allergic immune response. Our goal right now is to characterize the cells and processes in the body that are involved in promoting allergic immune responses. Once we understand some of these pathways, I would like to focus on two things: (1) how to block them to prevent allergic diseases, and (2) how these processes are affected by changes in environment—be it our microbial environment or our physical environment. Obviously the first effort would be important to develop new therapies for allergic diseases. The second would focus on why the prevalence of allergic diseases correlates with industrialization in ways and timeframes that cannot be explained by genetics.
What obstacles have you faced in getting to where you are today?
I have been so lucky. Others have seen my dedication to my goal and have found opportunities for me, given me the time to become independent, and given me the support to juggle all of this and a family. I have seen many others face obstacles that were removed from my path due to amazing mentors and I am so thankful for their support.
How has the Faculty Development Award helped you in your career?
Science is expensive and slow! The Faculty Development Award has given me the financial means to do the best and most high impact science without having to worry about whether I can pay the bills or if I’ll need to cut the cord on a project because I can’t afford to finish it. It is allowing me to develop and grow my laboratory group at this crucial early career stage I’m in and I am dedicated to being worthy of this investment.
Who are your mentors?
My most crucial mentors are my former post-doctoral advisor, Andrew D. Luster, MD, PhD, and my former PhD advisor, Ruslan Medzhitov, PhD. I believe in holding on to as many mentors as possible to see how other people manage all aspects of their lives, so I think this list would go on forever!