Immunology students receive community awards.

Naa Asheley Afua Adowaa Ashitey (specialist in the Spitzer lab) receives her community award from Dr. Vincent Chan (left) and Erin Huiting (graduate student in Bondy-Denomy lab) receives her community award from Prof. Tiffany Scharschmidt (right). Photo by Jonathan Wilson.

Empowering ImmunoX

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

What does the Barbie World and immune cells have in common? Plenty if you ask this year’s organizers of the annual UCSF ImmunoX / UC Berkeley Immunology Retreat.

The UCSF and UC Berkeley immunology community of families and friends get together every year to celebrate their scientific developments, offer feedback to trainees and learn new insights. 

This year, they met at the Asilomar Hotel and Conference Grounds at Pacific Grove, California from Sept. 22 to 24 and were greeted by an all pink Barbie-themed extravaganza. 

All attendees were invited to partake in the Barbie theme by wearing pink. Showing up at the venue, I saw pink jackets, pink suits and basically pink everywhere. 

The Barbie live-action movie came to the theaters earlier in 2023 and was the biggest box office hit of this year in the U.S. The movie depicted a journey of self-discovery for Barbie and Ken following an existential crisis, which made it very relatable (all of us have had one of those when our projects aren’t going anywhere). It was a story of empowerment, and the organizers echoed those sentiments throughout the retreat. 

The organisers introduced the Barbie theme to kick start the conference. Professor Rachel Rutishasuer (UCSF), Professor Michael Waterfield (UCSF), Professor Molly Ohainie (UCB) and Professor Michel Dupage (UCB) (all immunology professors) were the organizers along with Jonathan Wilson. 

They contextualised Barbie’s empowerment journey within our community’s commitment to empowering the immune system, drawing a comparison between the many Barbies in the Barbie World to the many different immune cells. 

Another parallel drawn from the Barbie movie was a celebration of friendships. The organisers wanted to emphasize that the beloved immunology community gathers every year, shares their science and celebrates their friendship. 

They encouraged using Barbie themed ice-breakers, for example “This Barbie is a …” or “My job is just ….”. 

The sessions were titled after famous Barbie quotes. For example, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” was adapted to “Do you guys ever think about innate immunity?” 

The table below lists adaptations from the movie. 

table with questions

The themes for the various sessions were divided into a broad area of immunology, starting with innate immunity on day one, moving onto infectious diseases and then tolerance immunology. 

On the second day, the science started off with discussing the power of engineering in immunology, moving on to B and T cell response, and finally a session on inflammation. 

A wonderful initiative on the part of the organisers was that the student chairs of all the sessions were senior graduate students from both UCSF and UCB. This offered the students valuable experience as being session chairs entails engaging deeply with the content being presented as well as encouraging the audience to ask questions. 

Through the talks and the poster sessions, the conference grounds were filled with engaging and interesting discussions about future collaborations. As a first-year graduate student, it served as an excellent opportunity to learn about all the diverse research happening at UCSF’s and UCB’s immunology departments.  

Attendees also heard about community initiatives undertaken both at UCSF and UCB by trainees such as SACNA B and Immunodiverse, Queer Grads and IgEquity, Mental Health Advocacy and MHC.  These community initiatives include conferences highlighting trainees from underrepresented backgrounds as well as advocating for  better mental health in academia. Recently in the past year, they organised a summer camp for high school students from underrepresented backgrounds at UCSF.

Community awards were conferred to Erin Huiting, Naa Asheley Afua Adowaa Ashitey, and Wendy Hung from UCSF for their econtributions for promoting teamwork, inclusion, mentoring, diversity and career development at UCSF via IgEquity, Immunodiverse and MHC organisations.

The retreat was FUNtastic and I definitely embraced my inner ImmunoBarbie. I can’t wait to return next year and the year after; some good immunotimes await us!