Liz Adkins becomes first graduate of the 'JAX Track' PHD program

Liz Adkins. Photo: Alonso Nichols and Tufts University.

Five years ago, Liz Adkins was an undergraduate student at Central Connecticut State University, floating between immunology and genetics in the entirely new setting that was Acadia National Park, the picturesque neighbor of The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Today, she is an avid runner, hiker and health enthusiast, and is on the cusp of starting work as a postdoc at the MDI Biological Laboratory as the first student to be accepted and graduate from the mammalian genetics Ph.D. track, a collaboration between JAX and Tufts University. 

The JAX Track, as it’s called, allows students to rotate studying in both Bar Harbor at JAX and the Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. “So before you join the lab, you get to test it out and see if you like it,” Adkins explains.

Adkins’ scholastic experiences have always been trailblazing, even before she sought higher education — she had attended both public and private school, and was even homeschooled for three years.

Adkins recalls wanting to be either a teacher or a writer, but always excelled in the sciences. When her teachers suggested it as a potential career, Adkins was flippant.

“It was cool, but I hadn’t really thought about it,” she said.

After a life-changing chemistry course in her junior year of high school, though, Adkins decided to pursue a major in chemistry, which she eventually changed to biochemistry. Following her passion for education and for research, Adkins then decided to earn a Ph.D. — leading her to the choice between immunology and genetics that put her on her fateful path toward JAX.

Having conducted research in the lab of JAX Professor Derry Roopenian, Ph.D., the focus of Adkins’ research was lupus, an autoimmune disease.

“Instead of attacking foreign bacteria or viruses, the patient’s immune system is actually instead attacking itself,” Adkins explains. Springboarding from the fact that lupus patients often died of kidney failure before they could be treated for the disease, Adkins decided to investigate the mechanism of lupus in a mouse model.

Now, she is studying follicular T Cells, which produce a protein (interleukin 21) that is linked to the presence of many autoimmune diseases when present in excess. Her dissertation defense, given August 5, was entitled “Characterization of a Novel Population of Follicular T Cells in Health and Disease.”

It wasn’t only the decisions made over the long course of the JAX mammalian genetics course that altered Adkins’ life in the five years since her arrival in Bar Harbor: she had chosen this setting, and not the Tufts facilities in Boston, because she so greatly appreciated the scenery in Acadia.

“When I moved here from Connecticut, I was pretty unhealthy,” Adkins says, having been initially drawn by the atmosphere of the picturesque Bar Harbor area. But she credits the many hiking paths on Mount Desert Island and the freely available JAX fitness center for the physique she has earned today. She plans to run her first marathon in Portland October 2.

 “It’s a lot easier to adapt to new habits when everything else is changing anyway,” she says.

Tamsyn Brann is a rising senior at Ardsley High School in Ardsley, New York. As the science writing intern with the JAX Summer Student Program. Follow Tamsyn's journey as a summer student on Instagram (@jaxlab), where she is sharing her adventures through selfies, tagged #ScienceSelfie.