AAI President’s Message

Akiko IwasakiAkiko Iwasaki, Ph.D.

Sterling Professor of Immunobiology; Professor of Dermatology and of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases); Director, Center for Infection and Immunity—Yale School of Medicine

Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

AAI President, 2023–2024

It is with great honor and delight that I accept the role of president of the American Association of Immunologists. Over the past five years, I have had the pleasure of working with the AAI Council and have gained valuable insights into how this organization tirelessly serves its members. The various activities and services of AAI do not happen by chance but are a result of the hard work and dedication of the previous and current presidents, vice presidents, Council members, and committee members, as well as the incredible staff that supports AAI.

I have fond memories of my time thus far as an AAI Council member. I was always in awe of the presidents, all brilliant scientists and leaders in the field of immunology who also tirelessly served AAI. They have included then-president JoAnne Flynn (2018–2019) and her successors. JoAnne was incredibly kind and generous with her time in showing me the ropes and giving me the confidence I needed as a first-year Council member. Jeremy Boss (2019–2020) showed great resilience by adapting and pivoting from the original 2020 annual meeting plans to deal with the emerging pandemic. Jenny Ting (2020–2021) paved the way as the first woman of color to lead AAI and served with such grace and conviction. Gary Koretzky (2021–2022), with his infinite wisdom and finesse, brought about important changes to the organization and tirelessly worked on behalf of AAI. Mark Davis (2022–2023) brought increased focus on human immunology and cutting-edge technologies and introduced a more relaxed atmosphere to Council meetings. I have the privilege of watching how the wheels turn behind the scenes at AAI and am in awe of the incredible dedication of all who have served on its Council and committees over the years. It is daunting to follow the acts of these great leaders, but I am truly inspired by their examples to serve in this important role.

While the immune system is essential to the survival of every living organism and has a wide-ranging impact on health and disease, the field of immunology was thrust into the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic. Immunologists worked tirelessly, and there have been remarkable accomplishments made, including speedy development and deployment of effective vaccines, rapid dissemination of viral testing, and approvals of various therapeutic modalities. At the same time, we continue to face many obstacles to controlling the viral spread, with the emergence of new variants of concern that caused wave after wave of infections throughout the world.

Some sequelae of COVID-19 include pulmonary embolism, cardiac arrest, heart failure, death, stroke, and diabetes, to name a few. These sequelae turned the notion of “acute respiratory infection” on its head, as nothing about these outcomes is acute or confined to the respiratory tract. In addition to acute COVID, roughly 10 percent of the infected develop long COVID. This can be a debilitating condition that involves more than 200 symptoms, most commonly fatigue, post-exertional malaise, cognitive dysfunction, tachycardia, loss or altered smell and taste, and many others.

COVID is not alone in causing chronic conditions following acute infection. A cluster of diseases collectively known as post-acute infection syndrome (PAIS) can follow infection with a dozen other infectious agents, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and can lead to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Collectively, PAIS is a complex disorder with a poorly understood pathogenesis. To develop effective therapies, it is essential that patients, researchers, and clinicians work together to pool their knowledge and expertise.

From this pandemic, we have also learned much about what we know and don’t yet know in terms of basic immunology. We still have yet to figure out how to make a vaccine that develops long-lasting cross-protective immunity, and how to improve future vaccines so that they not only prevent diseases but also infection and transmission. We also do not yet have a correlate of protection at the mucosal surfaces. To this end, it is encouraging to see the recent White House initiative Project NextGen, which has invested $5 billion towards creating long-lasting cross protective monoclonal antibodies and vaccines. This will speed the development of mucosal vaccines to possibly reduce transmission and infection risks and speed efforts to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine that protects against COVID-19 and other coronaviruses.

Infectious diseases are but one of the many challenges and opportunities for us as immunologists. Recent years have brought deeper insights into the role of the immune system in a large number of disease areas not historically considered immune diseases. It appears that the immune system is responsible for the pathogenesis of wide-ranging diseases—an insight that offers many possibilities in terms of immunotherapies. Many fundamental questions remain to be answered about the potential immunological underpinnings of cancer; aging; and many diseases, including neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, psychiatric, and metabolic. These diseases present challenges but also opportunities for immunologists to advance our knowledge and make a real difference in the lives and well-being of people around the world.

The future of immunology offers so much to be excited about. There is rapid development and refinement of new tools that enable us to do many types of analyses and manipulations of genome, transcriptome, epigenome, proteome, metabolome, and cells and tissues. Artificial intelligence now enables predictive modeling, design automation, and high-throughput screening, which can transform protein engineering and drug discovery. These new technologies, when applied to the right questions with the right approach, can bring about new insights and treatments at an unprecedented speed. At the same time, having access to these powerful and plentiful tools makes it all too easy to fall into randomly trying many omics approaches without a clear direction, which could lead to a plethora of big data without necessarily offering much insight. Now more than ever, graduate and postdoctoral education must incorporate critical and scientific thinking at the forefront.

Turning inward to focus on AAI, we must ask, what can AAI do for its members? In close collaboration with the new CEO, Dr. Loretta Doan, and the AAI leadership, I hope to contribute to key changes that can further improve this already amazing organization. First and foremost, I would like to help revamp AAI to serve the next generation of immunologists from diverse backgrounds. Young scientists are the future of immunology, and what better way to spend our efforts and resources than to focus on these future scientists? To this end, we are already seeing concrete improvements. In 2023, we started providing on-site childcare free to our members so mothers and fathers can attend the meeting and still enjoy being with their children at the venue. AAI also ended the practice of holding the annual meeting over Mother’s Day weekend—starting with 2024, annual meetings will be held on April or May non-holiday weekends. AAI is also committed to hosting meetings in states that protect women’s reproductive rights. I am excited that the 2024 annual meeting will take place in Chicago!

I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the member-serving efforts that are ongoing at AAI, which include awards, courses, publications, annual meetings, and public policy. One office I wish to highlight is the Public Policy and Government Affairs office, headed by Lauren Gross, J.D. Lauren, together with Jake Schumacher and Emily Kansler, Ph.D., provides an incredible wealth of knowledge on the up-to-date happenings on the Hill and guides the Council on how to navigate impending changes in Congress or the Department of Health and Human Services with the potential to impact the direction of federal research and funding. This office also supports the Public Policy Fellows program, which has produced 118 Fellows (with an additional 10 who just started their fellowship year) who are making important public policy contributions. AAI also has a History and Archives office that offers a wealth of information about its history, members, and the field of immunology’s contributions to the world, capably run by John Emrich, Ph.D.

Every year, AAI provides $2.5 million in funding for young investigators in the form of fellowship programs and awards. The AAI Career Development and Awards office headed by Mary Litzinger, Ph.D., ensures that these awards are given to the top deserving candidates every year. These include the Careers in Immunology Fellowship Program, Intersect Fellowship Program, Career Reentry Fellowship Program, and Travel for Techniques Program. We also offer the Grant Review for Immunologists Program, which benefits early career investigators. The ASPIRE Awards for Early Career Investigators were created last year to recognize and encourage young immunologists with great promise. AAI also recognizes the contributions of more established immunologists through many awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Distinguished Service Award, Distinguished Fellows of AAI, Public Service Award, Vanguard Award, Excellence in Mentoring Award, Steinman Award for Human Immunology Research, BioLegend Herzenberg Award, Thermo Fisher Meritorious Career Award, BD Biosciences Investigator Award, and the new Lancefield Mid-Career Achievement Award.

Another critical mission of AAI is to educate. To this end, AAI offers annual courses in both introductory and advanced immunology, taught by leaders in the field. These courses are always in high demand and regularly filled to capacity. AAI also conducts outreach programs, including the High School Teachers Summer Research Program in Immunology, offering high school science teachers an opportunity to learn more about immunology and assistance in developing a curriculum that can be used to pass this knowledge on to their students.

The annual AAI meetings are our scientific and social highlight of the year. They bring together an average of 3,200 immunologists every year from around the world, about 72 percent of whom represent AAI members. The annual meetings are not only great venues to learn about cutting-edge immunology, but also a place to meet fellow immunologists face to face and to make new connections and collaborations. These meetings require a huge amount of coordination years in advance, which is handled by the capable Meetings office headed by Gale Guerrieri.

The Membership office, headed by Jenny Woods, handles all aspects of establishing and sustaining scientists’ and trainees’ AAI membership and ensuring the delivery of membership benefits. Even though AAI is an American association in name, one of our goals is to increase both domestic and international membership, because international and interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to the success of immunology.

The Journal of Immunology (The JI), AAI’s flagship member journal, and its sister journal, ImmunoHorizons, have served as important journals in the field of immunology and are managed by the Editorial Office, led by Catherine Wattenberg. Dr. Eugene M. Oltz has been a dedicated and tireless editor-in-chief of The JI for five years. His vision and expertise have helped to make The JI one of the most respected and influential journals in the field of immunology. We are all grateful for his service and for his contributions to the field. AAI is pleased to welcome Dr. Gail Bishop as the new JI editor-in-chief. Dr. Bishop is a leader in the field of immunology and a former AAI president (2012–2013), and we are confident that she will continue to build on The JI's reputation as a leading journal in the field. ImmunoHorizons is a fully open-access, peer-reviewed, online-only journal committed to advancing the knowledge of immunology. We are fortunate to have Dr. Mark Kaplan serving as the editor-in-chief (he is easy to spot at the AAI annual meetings—just look for a green T-shirt or green sunglasses!). These journals have also been the major income source for our association. With the requirements to meet the open-access policy, we need to develop creative ways to raise funds and maintain the quality of service to our membership. This will be one of our key goals for Dr. Doan and the AAI leadership.

AAI is already serving its members in so many ways, but this is just the beginning! The best way to learn about the needs of its members is to ask! We will be asking how AAI can better serve you. We want to bring the maximum value to our membership that nurtures and supports the careers of future and current immunologists.

Turning our focus outward, what can AAI do for the world? As scientists, we are heavily supported by taxpayers, and as such, we owe the public clear communication about science and the scientific research we have the privilege of conducting. Beyond our own science, the importance of science communication has never been more in demand than during the pandemic and will become ever more important in the future. I am thrilled to continue the AAI public awareness campaign efforts launched by then-president Gary Koretzky. With the competent leadership and experience of the AAI Communications office, directed by Bethany Coulter, I am looking forward to continuing the work of making AAI the go-to resource for media and the public regarding information related to immunology in health and disease. We want AAI to be THE resource people go to when they google “the immune system,” “how vaccines work,” “allergy,” “immunotherapy,”—and likewise when a reporter needs to speak to an expert about a new vaccine or a therapy for cancer. We are also working steadily to widen our reach to younger audiences through social media engagement.

I hope that you will join me in making AAI a great resource for its members, those in the general public and media, and others around the world!

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