AAI President's Message


Jenny P.-Y. Ting, Ph.D. (AAI President, 2020-2021)

William Rand Kenan Professor, Department of Genetics
Professor of Microbiology-Immunology
Immunology Program Leader, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center
Director, Center for Translational Immunology
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Medicine

It is with pride and gratitude that I begin my term as the president of AAI, an association that nearly 9,000 immunologists from 69 countries claim as their intellectual home and where many form life-long friendships. In 2020, immunology is inarguably one of the most important fields of study in the life sciences, backed by the transformative achievements that immunologists have attained by applying basic research to revolutionary treatments for cancer, inflammation, and autoimmunity. This year, vaccinology, a foundational topic of immunology with roots dating back over 400 years, is at the forefront of our battle against a world pandemic. Additionally, it is widely recognized that two major classes of disease that threaten global health today, metabolic and neurodegenerative, are heavily influenced by our immune system. This is indeed an important time to be an immunologist.

My term starts, however, against a backdrop of unprecedented and troubling events that affect us all. First and foremost, we are living during an historic pandemic with a morbidity and mortality rate none of us has experienced in our lifetimes; because of this, personal and professional lives have been upended and most of the world’s economies are in recession. In the United States, three-quarters of Americans believe that the nation is on a wrong path, and we are facing a historic election to decide the character of the nation.

At the same time, massive worldwide protests demanding racial justice and social change were ignited by the callous murder of George Floyd and the long list of killings of innocent African American men, women, teenagers—and even children—that preceded it. It is in these very turbulent times, yet crucial period of significance for immunology, that I am humbled to assume this important leadership role on behalf of my AAI colleagues.

For many of us, we first encountered AAI as young trainees, amazed at the size and breadth of the annual meeting. Like so many of you, I gave my first scientific talk at an AAI meeting as a graduate student. I remember the gut-wrenching jitters when I stepped onto the podium to speak before a room full of intimidating scientists. Many decades later, I deeply appreciate that the AAI meeting, a scientific celebration that offers a platform to researchers at all career stages, is only possible because of the participation of investigators from around the globe.

The flagship AAI publication, The Journal of Immunology, under the editorship of Dr. Eugene Oltz, and the newer open-access journal, ImmunoHorizons, under the editorship of Dr. Mark Kaplan, publish many groundbreaking studies. These journals are supported by numerous editors and reviewers who generously volunteer their expertise and time, knowing that their efforts move an entire field forward. Likewise, AAI is supported across the range of its activities by 115 members serving on 21 committees. Chairs and members of these committees have carved out countless hours from their demanding schedules to serve the greater good. It takes more than a village; it takes a world of immunologists for AAI to remain vibrant.

AAI has an incredible awards program, which assists members in advancing their careers and recognizes their accomplishments. In 2019, AAI presented over 1,100 awards and fellowships totaling more than $2.6 million. There are many other valuable programs sponsored by AAI, including our very successful Introductory and Advanced Courses in Immunology, and I encourage you to visit the AAI website (www.aai.org) to learn more.

As AAI president, there are several priorities that I am interested in pursuing:

My first priority involves improving our collective skill and impact in communicating the critical nature of science to the lay population. It confounds most of us that well-established areas of science such as climate change and the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 are referred to by some as “hoaxes.” I have had conversations with highly educated people (nonscientists) who incredulously believe that fundamental scientific findings are generated for cynical, frivolous, or political reasons. We have a unique and essential responsibility to reverse the skepticism toward science by being fully engaged in our communications across all channels — in person, social media, popular press, and other outlets. It is heartening that one of the best “Explainers-in-Chief” in science is one of our own, Dr. Anthony Fauci (AAI ’73).

My second priority relates to fostering immunology teaching and learning at the undergraduate level. Although the significance of immunology is increasing in the public’s eye, it is perplexing that many universities do not offer undergraduate immunology classes. One would think that by now, most biologists are convinced that immunology is as fundamentally important as biochemistry or molecular biology. The AAI Education Committee is working to address this issue through an immunology curriculum development initiative to assist universities and colleges in offering undergraduate immunology instruction.

My third priority entails encouraging immunologists to work in high-impact research areas in which we have not yet asserted our influence in a significant way, such as the intersection of immunology and climate change, or the role of immunology in determining differences in health outcomes. The latter is illustrated by the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, where our Black, Latinx, and Native American citizens have much higher morbidity and mortality rates than other groups. What are the fundamental reasons, and are there immunological factors that play an important role? Further, how do social inequities affect our immunity and, hence, health outcomes?

My fourth priority is promoting our broader engagement as participants in the political process to advocate for the support and funding of basic scientific research. One of the most impactful tasks AAI Council members perform is visiting federal policymakers in Washington, including members of the Senate and House of Representatives, to talk about the importance of immunological research and to advocate for increased biomedical science funding. Through these visits, carried out under the guidance of AAI Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs Lauren Gross, we have found members of Congress from both parties to be supportive of scientific research. Even in this divisive political environment, thankfully, bipartisan support for NIH has been strong and consistent.

My last, but definitely not least, priority is engaging more fully with our international members. Beyond our national presence and impact, we are proud that AAI members are from 68 other countries. Many of our international members are conducting some of the most exciting cutting-edge research in our field. We need to better understand the challenges they face and highlight the advances they are making. Guest societies from numerous countries participate in presenting sessions at our annual meetings. AAI also supports meetings in other countries and sponsors symposia and speakers at international conferences. Further, AAI provides travel and fellowship awards for our international members. We must continue to do all we can to foster their participation and maintain engagement and collaborations with our international colleagues.

As a Chinese American, I am the first woman of color elected to serve as AAI president, and I feel an overwhelming sense of honor and appreciation for all your support. AAI has made great strides in the advancement of women and people of color to leadership positions and in activities that promote careers. I am committed to ensuring that these efforts grow and that AAI continues to be an inclusive organization that is aware and respectful of the diversity of all its members.

As an immigrant to the United States, I am optimistic that there are many better days ahead, despite some recent challenges of historic proportions. I am grateful to my alma mater, Illinois State University, for generously awarding me a foreign student scholarship that allowed me to come and study as a teenager. I am indebted to many who have mentored me along the way, but especially to Drs. Jeff Frelinger and Leslie Weiner from my postdoctoral days. I appreciate colleagues at my home university (UNC), Drs. Joseph Pagano, Fred Sparing, and Etta Pisano, for pushing me to take on leadership positions. Above all, I appreciate past and present trainees who decided to spend a period of their lives in my laboratory. Many have gone on to contribute in their own significant ways in academic research, teaching, industry, public policy, clinical science, and scientific writing.

As I assume the AAI presidency following five years on the AAI Council, I thank the outstanding AAI executive director, Dr. Michele Hogan, and an amazingly dedicated and talented staff, who have advocated for science and scientists while keeping the organization in enviable fiscal shape. I am extremely honored to have served with the outstanding past and future presidents of AAI who are so accomplished and wise, and look forward to working with my colleagues on the Council, committee leaders and members, and AAI staff to ensure a productive and secure future for the organization. And I look forward to working with all of you, as we continue to advance the critically important contributions and visibility of the field of immunology.

On a final note, I urge everyone to vote. The most impactful engagement each of us can perform as a scientist and as a citizen of the nation is to vote. Four years ago, I was disappointed to learn that many people, young and old, felt apathetic about the voting process. Since then, I remind the audience at every talk I give to “go vote.” If you can, vote early; if you cannot, make sure you cast your ballot on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. In this tumultuous era, I urge you to vote as though your life and career depend on it.

(Posted July 2021)

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