Dreams of the World: Mechanisms of Immune Defense against Viruses with Akiko Iwasaki, Yale University

Dreams of the World: One Dream a Time. This post is the latest in the series Dreams of the World, which profiles interesting people Kike meets during his travels.

Akiko Iwasaki, professor of Department of Immunobiology and Department of Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University. Photo © KIKE CALVO


¨My dream is to make vaccines that protect humans from infections diseases and cancer, ¨said Akiko Iwasaki, professor of Department of Immunobiology and Department of Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University.

¨I became fascinated with immunology when I first encountered the subject during my undergraduate studies,¨ said Iwasaki, who was born in 1970, in Iga (Japan) a city famous for its ninja clan.

¨I saw the relevance of immunology to human health and disease, and felt that this is a field through which I might be able to contribute something useful to improve human lives.¨

Iwasaki’s research focuses on the mechanisms of immune defense against viruses at the mucosal surfaces. Her laboratory is interested in how viruses are recognized by the innate immune system and how such information is translated into the generation of adaptive immunity.

¨Every aspiring scientist should read Peter Medawar’s book Advice To A Young Scientist,¨said Iwasaki.  ¨I read it as a graduate student, on recommendation by my thesis mentor, and I recommend others who are interested in entering the world of science to read it. ¨

She finds inspiration in her father, for his love of science. And finds inspiration on her mother, for her love of justice. ¨I remember taking vacation trips with my family, said Iwasaki. ¨My parents took us children (three daughters) to various spectacular places in Japan. Wonderful memories were created on those trips.¨

¨I am just as passionate about being a mother as being a scientist,¨ said Iwasaki. ¨My children are my inspiration and happiness. I devote my life to them whenever I am not at work.¨

Iwaksaki left Japan because she wanted to do something meaningful with her life. ¨I felt stifled as a woman in Japan,¨said Iwasaki. I love the country, and my family and friends there, but the restrictions placed on women by society were making it difficult to live out my dreams.¨

Three things everyone should know about infectious diseases:

  • Get vaccinated. There are many safe and effective vaccines that have been developed since the time of Edward Jenner, who vaccinated the first human subject with small pox vaccine in 1796. More recent vaccines, such as the HPV vaccine, can even protect humans against cancer. There is no reason not to vaccinate yourself or your children to prevent deadly infectious diseases.
  • Infectious diseases manifest in many different conditions. Infectious agents, viruses, bacteria and parasites, collectively known as pathogens, can cause conditions from acute flu-like symptoms to chronic diseases like AIDS or cervical cancer. The biggest challenge in preventing these diseases is to understand what type of immune responses are protective for each disease causing agent.
  • Humans are equipped to detect invading pathogens. Every cell of the body has multiple sensors that detect unique features associated with pathogens that are not found in our own cells. These sensors tell the host to respond to pathogen in the most effective manner, and ultimately generate immunological memory. My laboratory is interested in understanding how each sensor informs the host to generate long lasting immune responses.

Two things people probably are not aware when it comes to infectious diseases:

  • Most people are not aware that the viruses that cause the common cold, known as rhinoviruses, are present in the nose of people who do not show symptoms.
  • There are over a hundred types of rhinoviruses that infect humans, and there is not a single type that is responsible for pandemic disease. In contrast, influenza pandemic is caused by a small number of dominant strains of flu every year.

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Learn More:

Advice To A Young Scientist (Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Series)
A Planet of Viruses
The Immune System
How the Immune System Works, Includes Desktop Edition
Immunology Made Ridiculously Simple
Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple (Ed. 6)

Additional Readings:

The Man Who Saved The World From Smallpox: Doctor Edward Jenner
The A to Z of Infectious Diseases (Concise Encyclopedia)
Advice for a Young Investigator (Bradford Books)
A PhD Is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science
The Immune System Recovery Plan: A Doctor’s 4-Step Program to Treat Autoimmune Disease




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Meet the Author
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: www.colombiaphotoexpeditions.com