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Adaptive Computational Biologist Rachel Gittelman on her 2021 STAT Wunderkind Induction

Photograph of Rachel Gittelman

Rachel Gittelman, Adaptive’s Innovation team

Late last year I was honored to be inducted into the STAT Wunderkinds class of 2021. The award honors early-career scientists across academia and industry that are making important contributions to science and healthcare.

I was grateful to learn that my colleagues at Adaptive had nominated me to join this impressive group. Since joining Adaptive as a computational biologist in 2016, my focus has been on synthesizing complex, multi-dimensional immunomics datasets and correlating these with clinically relevant metadata. I have been combining my knowledge of biology, medicine, and statistics to interpret patterns within our immune system, with the goal of developing better diagnostics for patients based on how our immune systems naturally detect disease and respond to therapy.

My current role on the Innovation team is to lead disease modeling research on the Antigen Map. The Antigen Map was established when Adaptive partnered with Microsoft in 2018 to apply machine learning and cloud computing to Adaptive’s deep sequencing technology to decode and map the human immune response to many different diseases. The nature of my work became even more critical during the pandemic. I helped lead a team of Adaptive and Microsoft employees to analyze data from blood samples of over 6,500 people infected with SARS-CoV-2 from all over the world, identifying SARS-CoV-2 associated T-cell receptor sequences and the viral antigens they map to. These data were made available to the research and scientific community via ImmuneCODE – Adaptive and Microsoft’s open public database. Ultimately, this work led to the launch of Adaptive’s first commercially available T-cell test designed to detect recent of prior SARS-CoV-2 infections.

While I’ve known the importance of my work, I became even more proud of my accomplishments following the Wunderkinds virtual meet and greet, where I met the 26 other members of my class, and realized what truly impressive company I’ve found myself in. This year’s trailblazing cohort included researchers working on a wide variety of topics, from machine learning in single-cell cancer diagnostics, to gene editing techniques in sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia, and investigations into the health disparities in BIPOC communities.

As a member of the Wunderkind class of 2021, I was invited to attend STAT’s annual summit, which was virtual this year. The summit featured an impressive list of speakers – from researchers to activists to politicians – who were interviewed by the reporters at STAT. This format was an interesting departure from the types of conferences I’m used to – without slides or figures, just informal conversations with the speakers. Discussion was, of course, dominated by COVID-19, but there were some other topics as well.

Some of my favorite talks included a conversation with Trevor Bedford, PhD, a scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and an expert on viral evolution and epidemiology, about the future of the coronavirus. My scientific background before I started at Adaptive was in population genetics, evolution, and phylogenetics, so I was excited to see Trevor Bedford talk, and have been following him on Twitter throughout the pandemic.

Additionally, Representative Kurt Schrader, US congressman from Oregon, gave a firsthand account of his work on changing drug prescription costs through the Build Back Better Act, balancing making drugs affordable while ensuring that pharma companies still have the ability to innovate in a world where drugs are extremely costly to bring to market. Arati Prabhakar, former head of the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Tara A. Schwetz, PhD, Acting Principal Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) discussed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), a new health research agency being championed by President Biden that would tackle some of the most insidious diseases affecting Americans today, like cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

I am so grateful to Adaptive’s leadership team for nominating me for this recognition and gifting me this incredible opportunity. It has been an incredible privilege to join this diverse community of up-and-coming scientists. Since the virtual meetup, STAT has also been keeping us connected on LinkedIn and I was excited to learn a few of us are located in Seattle. I am certain I will continue to benefit from these connections I’ve made in the future.

This designation is a reflection of not just my work but the fantastic people I work with. Everything I do at Adaptive is truly a team effort, and I am continually inspired by my colleagues and what we can accomplish together.

I’ve learned so much from leading the Antigen Map work focused on COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. It was thrilling to analyze massive amounts of data from the adaptive immune system in close to real time, to help our team develop new ways to read and interpret the immune system response. I’m excited to see how we can apply this knowledge to other disease states and conditions, like autoimmune disorders and cancer.

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