How Seattle's collaborative immunology makes for better research

PEOPLE IN RESEARCH Article by: Coral Garnick, Staff Writer,Puget Sound Business Journal

Marion Pepper is an assistant professor for the department of immunology at the University of Washington.

From kindergarten through high school, Marion Pepper attended an all-girls school outside Philadelphia that placed a lot of emphasis on the sciences. “The major benefit was that I never knew there were ‘things girls couldn’t do,’” she said. “I think it was really empowering.”

While in high school, though, Pepper found two passions – writing and biology, and she could never quite decide which to pursue. So, she did both and graduated from a small college in Massachusetts with her bachelor’s in both English and biology. Coming out of college, Pepper thought she wanted to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and become a medical doctor, so she started taking pre-med classes. But, when her high school biology teacher got sick and her high school needed a substitute, Pepper stepped up and ended up loving it. She taught at the school for four more years. “Then I got bored with teaching all the science and instead wanted to do the science and test out my own hypotheses,” she said, adding that she also “kept thinking more and more about doing science and less and less about treating people.”

Pepper’s identical twin had already graduated with her doctorate in developmental genetics, and Pepper started down the same path. While taking an immunology class, though, she fell in love with it, switching gears again. “It sort of found me, more than I found it,” she said. “I tried on a lot of different hats and this was the one that fit the best.” She had always been intrigued by developmental biology – how cells change and function and what regulates that. For her, though, immunology and specifically infectious disease research, was that “but on speed.” “These cells have to develop fast, but also have to do it in competition with something that wanted to kill them,” she said, explaining her focus in the study of the immune system, or immunology. “It is a puzzle to figure out how cells win against things that are invading.” The Seattle area is prime with immunologists and researchers looking for immunotherapies to treat and cure cancer. Pepper, though, is studying infectious diseases such as malaria and allergens looking to both make better vaccines and suppress allergic responses. Coming to Seattle was a great move for her, she said because it is a great place to be for immunology. “Our department is down in South Lake Union and I love it because we have Seattle BioMed across the street, Fred Hutch down the street, Juno is moving in next door,” she said. “The Institute for Systems Biology and Benaroya Research Institute and all these other places are within a 10-block radius from our department, which really facilitates collaboration.”

People in Research Name: Marion Pepper Age: 43 Job:
Assistant professor in the department of immunology at UW
Education: B.A. in English and Biology from Williams College and Ph.D. in Immunology from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

People in Research is a weekly series highlighting the people who are driving innovation and growth in the Puget Sound region's expanding life science sector, which is the fifth largest employment sector in Washington.

The state ranks No. 8 in the nation for the amount of funding received from the National Institutes of Health — $885 million in 2015.