Meet Our Postdoctoral Fellows

Marie Mooney

Funding supported by T32 Grant

  1. Hometown
    Grand Rapids, MI
  2. Current research
    I work with a talented team of scientists in the Center for Human Disease Modeling who use sequencing to identify variants in the genome of individuals with developmental disorders. I use computational and mathematical modeling to identify potential interactions between variants that influence the expression and severity of the disease. We verify that these predictions are valid in disease models ranging from cultured cells to genetically modified zebrafish or mice, and then we do another round of prediction to identify potential therapeutic interventions, which we can evaluate in the same disease models. Every time we make a prediction, we rely on a lot of assumptions about which biological signals will give us a meaningful result. We know that current approaches are not sufficient to capture all of the biology because sequencing and prediction only identifies disease-driving variation in a subset of patients, or poorly defines the set of phenotypes we observe. Part of our goal is to better understand the functional implications of alterations in individual genomic architectures so that we can make better prediction models.
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    One of my strengths as a scientist is a natural tendency to collect things, and even as a child I collected pictures, writings, and communications in shoeboxes and binders. In my collection, I especially cherish a recommendation from my middle school science teacher that encouraged me to join the Science Olympiad team. As I adopted an identity as a scientist through Science Olympiad, I started paying more attention to research activities in society. When the president celebrated the draft sequence of the human genome at the turn of the century, I watched the news at home and started jabbering on and on about how cool genomes were. My mother caught on to my interest and fed me articles on the topic, one of which described how bioinformatics accelerated project completion by several decades. Even though I had zero exposure to computer programming, I felt like I had to learn this skill to do next generation biology, and so I enrolled in a programming class at the community college before heading to Michigan Tech to major in bioinformatics.

    Looking back, it surprises me that I never thought too much about illness and disease until I joined a cancer institute, where we used a combination of genomic profiling and animal disease avatars to screen tumors for drug response. My first meeting with a family, who lost their daughter to an aggressive brain stem tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), impressed on me the importance of bringing basic research closer to the clinic and involving families in the process. Her parents identified critical obstacles to integrating clinical care and basic research and drove change in processes like biopsy collection and research funding in the hope that someday no family would have to lose a child to DIPG. In my work at Duke, I have the privilege to pursue that mission more broadly: no family should have to lose a child to any disease.

  4. What excites you about your work?
    In the past century, we have shattered barriers to long life and health, especially by combating infectious diseases with vaccines and antibiotics, or with surgical interventions like organ transplantation. Now, genetic disorders are on the table. The combination of genomic sequencing, gene-editing, and rapid drug development technology puts curative therapy for genetic disorders firmly within reach. Exciting!
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    I see myself running a research laboratory focused broadly on childhood genetic diseases. I look forward to establishing a cross-training environment where young scientists learn to apply both computational and laboratory skills to their research, and where they are encouraged to ground their approaches with practical limitations imposed by clinical practice and how potential solutions would impact patient care. I intend to build a training environment that will support highly creative solutions and a “fail-fast” mentality similar to that espoused in entrepreneurial endeavors.  

Bill Hankey

Funding supported by T32 Grant

  1. Hometown
    Andover, MA
  2. Current research
    I'm currently working on research designed to identify how normal prostate and prostate cancer cells respond to drugs such as sildenafil (Viagra) and predicting how these drugs might impact patients who are undergoing treatment for prostate cancer or are at risk for developing prostate cancer.
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    This field of study stood out to me because it offered the opportunity to learn more about the genetic basis of cancer in a lab that is at the cutting edge of genomic technologies. These technologies allow researchers to look at thousands of genetic differences between healthy cells and diseased cells and to rapidly identify genetic characteristics that protect patients as well as characteristics that increase their risk. This process provides clues about where to look for the next breakthroughs to improve patient care.
  4. What excites you about your work?
    The most exciting part of the project is collaborating with pathologists and other medical experts who can help us examine the genetic characteristics of prostate cancer samples from real patients, allowing us to test ideas that we have developed in the research lab.
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    I hope to be collaborating with clinicians and other researchers on the next generation of cancer genomics studies, but in the capacity of an independent researcher who generates new ideas and projects and helps teach up-and-coming scientists.

Cory Stingl

Funding supported by T32 Grant

  1. Hometown

    Milwaukee, WI

  2. Current research
    My current research is on a group of conditions called the juvenile idiopathic inflammatory myopathies. They are a rare group of autoimmune conditions that affect predominantly the muscles in children but very frequently affect the skin and less frequently other organ systems like the lungs. Compared to other children with autoimmune disease, such as juvenile idiopathic arthritis, they tend to have slower response to treatment, more problems from their condition, and more side effects from exposure to protracted treatment courses with steroids. Our goal is to study whether findings on exams, standard blood tests, autoantibody profiles, and gene expression profiles coupled with machine learning can identify clinically meaningful subgroups that help predict, amongst other things, response to treatment.
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    Prior to medical school, I serendipitously ended up doing some research in pediatric rheumatology while I was doing my post-baccalaureate work. I was able to go to a clinic with my PI and really enjoyed seeing the same patients back every few months and seeing most of them return to a high level of function. During that time, I learned that pediatric rheumatologists get involved in the care of many undiagnosed patients due to the diverse presentations seen in the conditions we diagnose and treat. I really enjoyed the extra challenges that came with the varied disease presentations.
  4. What excites you about your work?
    From a clinical standpoint, my goal has always been to find ways to minimize the impact of their chronic medical conditions on their lives so they can go back to being kids. There are many ways to approach this problem, but the most promising to me is a combined approach of precision medicine and genomics. Longer-term, though, my interest is in finding ways to prevent children from getting the conditions we treat. I am optimistic that this will be a reality during my career.
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    This question is getting increasingly difficult to answer with how fast things are changing. I think a few things will stay constant. Ten years ago, I was interested in the clinical aspects of pediatric rheumatology, so I don’t think that will ever go away. I think the other piece that will stay constant is working with very large data sets. I was doing that in the mortgage industry ten years ago and am doing it today.

Carolyn Baloh

Funding supported by T32 Grant

Carolyn Baloh

  1. Hometown:
    Pittsburgh, PA
  2. Current research:
    My current research is entitled “Novel genetic models of common variable immune deficiency (CVID).” CVID is the most common immunodeficiency comprising 30% of all immunodeficiencies. The disease is associated with significant morbidity as patients are prone to recurrent infections, autoimmune disease, and malignancy. The morbidities can also place patients at higher risk of death. To date, we have identified only 10 percent of all genetic mutations associated with this disease. I am working on a project that will involve identifying further genetic defects and then creating mouse models of the defects to better characterize the disease and novel therapies.
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    My passion for the field of allergy immunology has grown since I was a child. My first exposure to the field was through my allergist when I was diagnosed with asthma at age 11 years. He encouraged my interest by discussing my breathing tests, showing me immunology text books, and telling me about conferences that he had attended. My interest grew in medical school as I learned basic immunology and rotated with the Allergy Immunology group at Penn State. My interest was further fostered as I completed my pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and worked with the allergy immunology team there. I learned a lot about food allergy especially during that time and completed two research projects and one quality improvement project in that area under the guidance of Dr Green.

    After graduating to my fellowship at Duke University, I have gained a great deal of exposure to immunology. I am captivated by the need for research and clinical physicians in this area. Most especially our CVID patients for whom there is a significant morbidity and often mortality. I have seen firsthand how Dr Buckley has advanced the knowledge and treatment of severe combined immunodeficiency, meeting patients who received bone marrow transplantation 30 years ago and countless patients whose lives were saved by her willingness to advance early diagnosis and bone marrow transplantation without conditioning. Despite CVID being more common than SCID, we have far fewer options for treatment. Perhaps this is because it is not deadly within the first year of life, but the morbidity for these patients can be crippling. In 2016, Quinti et al. published an article in JACI establishing the first CVID specific quality of life questionnaire. They found that frequent infections in CVID patients led to a significant impact on emotional and relational functioning. Additionally, we have no way to risk stratify patients to determine which ones are more likely to have early death due to a malignancy.  he chart review project that I have been working on throughout my first year of fellowship is designed to help physicians with this risk stratification with both adult and pediatric patients with CVID. Further understanding of the genetic defects and their response to different treatments will augment our ability to manage quality of life and early mortality in this disease.

  4. What excites you about your work?
    I consider myself lucky to be able to come to work every day and do something that I love. In my role as a researcher, I love being on the cutting edge of medical knowledge and having the potential to impact treatment of disease. Every day is an opportunity for me to learn more and to help to move the field of immunology forward in some small way. In my role as clinician, I love having the opportunity to interact with patients and to help them live healthier more fulfilling lives. I am humbled everyday by the intelligent people who surround me in the laboratory and in the clinic.
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    Ten years from now I plan to have a faculty position at an academic institution where I can treat and research immunodeficiencies, especially CVID. The doctor-patient relationship is always an exchange of knowledge and experience, and I look forward to that informing my future career. Doctors can teach patients about their illnesses and perform research to better understand and treat them, while patients can teach doctors what it is like to live with an illness and can inspire doctors to generate questions for further research. In addition to my role as a teacher and healer for my patients, I hope to be a teacher to other physicians. Immunodeficiencies are rare disorders but can have an enormous impact on those affected by them. It is important for all physicians to be educated on such disorders so that patients can be diagnosed in a timely fashion, hopefully preventing development of severe disease manifestions. If we do not know to think of certain diseases, a diagnosis may never be made!

L. Gayani Tillekeratne

Funding supported by the K Award

  1. Hometown:
    I grew up in Toledo, OH but was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and moved to the U.S. at age nine.
  2. Current research:
    I recently received a career development award through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) to study the epidemiology of acute respiratory tract infections among patients hospitalized in Sri Lanka. As part of this work, I will be evaluating the performance of host gene expression signatures developed by the CAGPM team to distinguish viral versus bacterial respiratory tract infections. I will determine how well these signatures perform in the Sri Lankan setting, refine the signatures, and validate them along with host biomarkers such as procalcitonin in a prospective cohort of patients with acute respiratory tract infections.
  3. How did you become interested in your field of study?
    I have been interested in global health-related work from early in my medical training, after spending time in Tanzania and Kenya. Antimicrobial resistance and stewardship are areas of great need in resource-limited settings, and I became interested in these areas during my infectious diseases fellowship. Some of my work over the last few years has shown that antibiotics are greatly overused for acute respiratory tract infections in the outpatient setting in Sri Lanka. Using pathogen-based diagnostic tests like rapid influenza tests only reduced antibiotic use minimally, due to physicians’ concerns about bacterial co-infection and patients’ desire for antibiotics, among others. Thus we are studying multimodal approaches to impact antibiotic use in this setting. I became involved in host response work after working with my current mentor, Chris Woods, and learning about some of his transformational research in diagnostics.
  4. What excites you about your work?
    The science behind my current work is novel and exciting. The ability to directly impact patients and to work with collaborators around the world is what drives me.  I am fortunate to be able to practice clinical medicine, conduct interesting research, and spend considerable time at the sites where I work.
  5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
    I hope that I would be an established researcher with the knowledge and resources to conduct antibiotic stewardship trials in resource-limited settings, using cost-effective and culturally acceptable interventions. I would love to build a network across the sites we work to see these goals come to fruition. Mostly, I hope that our studies will ultimately help drive practice change and provide an avenue for our local colleagues to become engaged in research and drive innovation locally.