Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies

Professor Carla Rothlin

Professor Carla Rothlin
July 28, 2020

The Council on Latin American & Iberian Studies recently had a chance to speak with Professor Carla Rothlin at the Yale School of Medicine. See below for her bio and brief Q&A related to her research and a new immunology virtual series.

Carla Rothlin is the Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Immunobiology and Professor of Pharmacology. She is a principal investigator in the Rothlin Ghosh laboratory and one of the co-leaders of the Yale Cancer Center. Professor Rothlin’s academic interests lie in the intersection of immunology, cell biology, and neuroscience, and her research program focuses on how the immune responses are calibrated to avoid chronic inflammation, autoimmunity and self-harm.

Born and raised in Argentina, she received a PhD in from the University of Buenos Aires in 2020 under the direction of Dr. Belen Elgoyhen. Before coming to Yale, she completed her Postdoctoral training with Dr. Greg Lemke at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA, where she was a Pew Latin American Fellow.

Professor Rothlin current research is mainly focused on three topics: (1) the macrophage-stromal interactions during tissue homeostasis and wound repair; (2) the crosstalk between stromal and immune cells, in the context of cell turnover or injury, during the formation and function of the nervous system; and (3) the innate immune checkpoints and anti-tumor immunity. Her lab is particularly interested in exploring cell death and its clearance, and how this can function as a signal for specific effector responses during morphogenesis, homeostatic tissue renewal, or resolution and wound repair after damage.

The author of more than 50 articles, Professor Rothlin was elected a Fellow to the Pew Foundation in 2002 and appointed as Faculty Scholar at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2016. She is the recipient of the Bernardo Houssay Award from the Argentine Society of Biology (2002), the Scientist Developmental Award from the American Heart Association (2008), the Senior Research Award from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (2010), the Novel Research Grant from the Lupus Research Institute (2011), and the Early Excellence Award from the American Asthma Foundation (2011).                 

Professor Rothlin is one of the lead organizers of Global Immunotalks, a weekly seminar series delivered by thought leaders in all areas of fundamental immunology. The series aims at helping to close the gap between those in the scientific community who have regular access to these kinds of talks and those who do not. On July 1, Professor Rothlin was featured in the series, and her talk was entitled, “Phosphatidylserine sensing in life and death.”

To register for upcoming events or learn more about the series, please go to this link.

Q&A with Professor Rothlin

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born, raised, and educated in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I graduated from the University of Buenos, where I majored in biochemistry and pharmacy. There, I also completed my Ph.D. in Neuropharmacology, under the supervision of whom I consider my mentor,  Belén Elgoyhen.

I have always been fascinated by science, so I decided to continue my training as a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. I came to the United States in 2002 to work there as a Pew Latin American Fellow, under the supervision of Greg Lemke. It was at Greg’s lab where I became interested in immunology. In his lab, our team identified a set of receptors that play a role in the response of the immune response, particularly in the regulation of inflammation. In fact, these immune response receptors have been a major focus of my research agenda.

I have been at Yale for almost 11 years now. I joined the Department of Immunobiology in 2009 as an assistant professor, and now I co-direct a lab together with Sourav Ghosh, who is an Associate Professor in Neurology and Pharmacology.

How has your experience at Yale been so far?

It has been fantastic! I decided to come here not only due to the excellence in scientific research conducted at Yale, but also for our departmental colleagues.

To be honest, I wouldn’t know where to begin to describe my experience. It has been an amazing decade in which I could set up the lab with Sourav, assemble a terrific team, and work with professors both inside and outside the department. It really has been a dream come true!

One of the things I appreciate most about the department is the excellent atmosphere. There is a spirit of learning from one another and helping each other to push forward scientific knowledge. The Department of Immunobiology is very strong, scientifically speaking, but this has not prevented it from having a strong collegial atmosphere. This is very positive not only for the professors themselves, but more importantly, for all those who work in the labs. This has been especially important to me, because it lets us all learn from each other.

Was there anything in particular that got you interested in immunology and, more recently, in cancer research?

It started during my post-doc where I had the opportunity to conduct research in an outstanding environment.

Although I was working in a neurobiology lab, my research was primarily focused on receptors that affect immune system responses. It was during this research, and thanks to the freedom I had in the lab, that I could begin to delve into immunology.

Elina Zuñiga also had a lot to do with it. She’s a very good friend of mine who is currently a professor at UCSD. We were post-docs together, but she was affiliated with an immunology lab. As we became friends, I learned more from her and more about cellular immunology until, at a certain point, I ended up in this field.

As I worked on immunology, and particularly on inflammation, I came to realize that this can have a tremendous impact on the response to infections. We usually assume that the immune system is only triggered when we have an infection, which can be caused by a virus, a parasite, or bacteria. But it turns out the immune system plays a very important role also when we have damages that are not necessarily caused by infections. For instance, in the case of degenerative diseases such as neurodegeneration, or in cellular abnormalities such as cancer. I became fascinated by all these different roles of the immune system.

These interests explain a lot of the work we do in our lab. Our general approach is very basic – we are trying to understand how you regulate the magnitude and duration of the inflammatory response. Unraveling questions associated with this idea has implications not just in infections but also in many other settings, from cancer to neurodegeneration. I think it is this very basic approach that motivates our minds, to let ourselves be guided where science wants to take us.

Now let’s talk about your new venture, Global Immunotalks. How did you come up with this virtual series and what was your inspiration?

Elina called me after learning about an online seminar on metabolism that was hosted by one of her colleagues at UCSD. She told me this initiative was having a lot of success, so she proposed to replicate it in the context of immunology. I thought it was a wonderful idea, so I immediately joined the project. We are also very good friends and I thought it was a fun project to work on together.

I remember thinking that this would be a great initiative not only now that all the conferences have been canceled and we have to stay at home, but even beyond COVID-19. I am especially pleased with this initiative because of its worldwide reach.

Elina and I are both from Argentina and know firsthand that many do not have the opportunity to hear directly from leading researchers on a regular basis. For this reason, we thought we could organize this series of lectures, which would be free and could be watched by anyone with an internet connection. Also, if the project worked out, we would be helping to connect the immunology community-at-large.

When we launched the project, we were very excited about the fact that we would reach out to South America, Asia, or Africa and even in many places in the United States. We have to remember that not all institutions can host seminars like the ones at Yale or UCSD. This was the driving force behind launching the series, and now that we’ve gotten feedback, it seems to be paying off. People all around the world have been joining in and listening to these talks.

For example, for the talk I just did on my research, hundreds of people joined us live on Zoom. Then, right after we uploaded it on YouTube, we can see that hundreds more were watching it via YouTube too.

How do you feel the series has been going? What do you hope to achieve upon its completion?

We are starting to think about Global Immunotalks 2021. However, I’m quite happy with what we have already achieved. We have reached many people that otherwise would not have access to this kind of talks, maybe because of location, lack of economic resources, or even conflicting schedules. The fact that these talks can be seen on YouTube at any time and for free is a powerful tool for spreading specialized knowledge. I think that in this sense Global Immunotalks have had a very positive impact.     

Now, we still have a long way to go to reach as many people as possible. We probably need to be more organized and thorough in getting the word out to graduate programs around the world that might be interested. I think many people have heard about this initiative, but we still have a long way to go.

Another thing that we are very much aware of – and this has been a great challenge – is the need to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. This is especially true when one organizes an event on a global scale, and there are so many aspects to think about in terms of diversity and inclusion. First, we need to cover the diversity of topics covered by immunology – this is a huge field! Equally important is to cover the different scientific approaches, the different countries, genders, and levels of training. There are too many aspects to think about and it is challenging because, unfortunately, we are limited to those colleagues we know. But we are very aware of these limitations and we are doing our best to overcome them.

We are excited to have you as part of our CLAIS affiliated faculty where we also have a core group of graduate students as part of our network too. What are you looking forward to the most being affiliated with CLAIS and the MacMillan Center?

The Council represents a unique opportunity to foster interactions between professors from different schools and departments, as well as between them and the students.

Since I love education, I always look forward to interacting with students and look forward to upcoming programming where I can do so with CLAIS. I have been teaching for a long time, and education has been a big part of my life and my development as a human being, so I would love to interact with graduate students and other professors. I believe that by interacting and getting to know one another, we can learn from each other’s experiences and, in so doing, we can contribute to each one’s learning process, professors included.

You have built an extremely successful career. If you could pass on a piece of advice to current students, what would it be?

I usually don’t like to give advice to others. I have always felt that one can only advise people that one knows well. That said, perhaps I could share with you something that has served me well during my career. It has been extremely beneficial to me to focus on each step instead of thinking about the ultimate goal. Regardless of your background, it can be very daunting to think about how you can become a tenured professor. If that’s a thought that consumes you from the very beginning of your Ph.D., it’s not hard to think that’s an impossible goal. However, if you focus on the process rather than the goal, on what it takes to succeed at each stage of the process, this path may not be as daunting. You might even become a tenured professor without even realizing it!

At least for me, it has been beneficial not to think so much about the final goal while I was walking the path, both during my doctorate and my postdoc, as well as when I was setting up the lab or even when I was appointed as an associate professor. Being focused on and enjoying each stage of my academic career has perhaps been much more conducive than being constantly paralyzed by thinking about the long-term goals I hoped to accomplish.