The Immune System: The Most Powerful System
A profile of Christina Zielinski
By Monika Kirsch / translated by Anna Komor
With the start of the year, Christina Zielinski joins us as the head of the new Infection Immunology department at the Leibniz-HKI, as well as professor of the same title at Friedrich Schiller University. As a dedicated researcher, she is always looking for the best of all possible options. As a result, she enjoys an impressive career and dedicates herself especially to helping her female colleagues.
“I actually always wanted to study medicine and help cancer patients,” says Zielinski. And although her first course in immunology was the worst course of her study, she realized during her Ph.D. work “The immune system is actually the system with the greatest power both to heal illness and to cause illness.” Over time, the Rheinland-Pflaz born scientist developed a fascination for the fundamental questions surrounding the immune system, those having to do both with outside infections as well as with cancer and auto-immune diseases. During her dermatology residence after medical school, Zielinski developed a renewed respect for the immune system and found herself continually drawn towards research. “I found working with patients extremely satisfying,” she reflects, but the urge to generate new knowledge, and with that the basis for new therapies, was larger.
“We now know that patients that suffer extreme consequences from Candida infections do so because they have either insufficient or malfunctioning Th17 cells”
Zielinski’s research program focuses on a type of cell called T cells, which play a decisive roll in the human immune system. She and her team were the first to show that Th17 cells are specialized in the recognition of the pathogenic fungus Candida albicans. “We now know that patients that suffer extreme consequences from Candida infections do so because they have either insufficient or malfunctioning Th17 cells. We also know how to increase the number of Th17 cells and how to improve their function, so that we can hold the Candida infection in check.” Zielinski is pragmatic not only regarding her career choices, but also her research program: it is for her of highest importance to work on concrete clinical problems. “Then the results, even when they constitute only a small building block, have the chance to help the patient, and that is wonderful,” she says.
In their new location, Zielinski’s team of doctors, biologists, biochemists, and bioinformaticians will continue to research human fungal infections. Insights into how the immune system – especially the T cells – recognize specific fungi and then target them for elimination should benefit patients with fungal infections in the form of clinical therapy. In addition, her group is a pioneer in dealing with so-called resident immune cells, i.e. immune cells that persist in the tissue. Until now, immunologists concentrated mainly on circulating immune cells, especially on the immune cells in blood. Zielinski wants to understand what attracts T cells to tissue and what compels them to stay. Of additional interest is the communication between these resident T cells and their interaction with the tissue microenvironment. Resident T cells have a dark side as well: they not only protect from infection, but can also trigger autoimmune diseases via regulation errors.
“I am in heaven when I have a pipette in one hand and a tube in the other.”
It is not only important for Zielinski to maintain a steady and creative exchange with her colleagues worldwide, but also with her own team. She is oft seen in the laboratory discussing projects, analyzing data, and giving feedback. And the following rapture: “After a long day of bureaucratic work, it sometimes grabs me. I love it then when I have a pipette in one hand and a tube in the other. There I am totally euphoric,” Zielinski laughs. “During the experimental incubation time I go back to my office and then sometimes forget to continue with the experiment. This first occurs to me a week later while I am trying to fall asleep. My team often laughs when they find my half-finished tube somewhere in the lab.”
"I'm passionate about making sure people who deserve it don't have to face opposition to achieve their goals."
In addition to her ambitious research program, Zielinski focuses a large amount of energy on helping junior scientists. Of especial import is the promotion of female scientists. “I have found it not so easy to be a woman with a scientific research career, and I therefore serve gladly as a mentor for female scientists,” she says with spirit. “I share my experiences with friends and am passionate about making sure that people who deserve it don’t have to face undue opposition to achieve their goals.” Zielinski hopes to see more diverse representation in leadership positions in the future and encourages her colleagues to maintain diverse networks.
As for being a working mother during the pandemic, Zielinski has the following unflinching comments: “That works only when one has an equal partnership where both parties see eye to eye. When things get hard it is important that each has respect and understanding for the other, so that both can provide support.” She reflects that she is very privileged that her job is quite flexible and that she can work independently. She is able to share childcare duties with her husband, who also holds a professorship. Together with colleagues from the University Clinic in Jena, she is also researching the reaction of immune cells to the Corona infection and is in this way making her own contribution to overcoming the current crisis.
Zielinski wishes that, the current measures taken during the Corona pandemic notwithstanding, the government would action to increase the number of daycare and kindergarten spots, so that everyone who wants to could work and contribute.
After having filled many prestigious positons, including at Yale University in the USA, the Charitié Hospital in Berlin, and most recently at TU Munich, Zielinski is since January Professor for Infection Immunology at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena and leads a new department with the same name at Leibniz-HKI. The immunologist looks forward to “great opportunities with a fantastic infrastructure.”