Rong Ma, PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow, Emory University

Dr. Rong Ma received the Michelson Prize: Next Generation Grant for: ”Harnessing receptor mechanics as a marker for immunogenicity to isolate and identify potent T cell receptors and recognized antigens.”

Dr. Ma’s research is based on novel mechanotechnology which measures and interprets the mechanical forces involved in the human immune system. Her proposal provides a pathway for using these mechanics to identify and predict immune responses, which could greatly advance vaccine development and personalized cancer treatment.

Dr. Ma studied Environmental Science and Technology at the City University of Hong Kong. In 2021, she received her Ph.D. in Chemistry, Mechanobiology, and Immunology at Emory University, Atlanta. Dr. Ma currently holds a postdoctoral position at Kahlid Salaita’s laboratory at Emory University, Atlanta.

What drew you to the field of immunology?

Our immune system is a very delicately dictated defense mechanism. It is super sensitive, precise, and dynamic. There is so much that we still don’t understand, and I am eager to explore it further. When I started my research in Dr. Khalid Salaita’s lab at Emory University, a majority of my work involved visualizing the interactions that T cells initiate when detecting antigens. When you observe them under the microscope, these fluctuating interactions are so dynamic and organized at the same time, allowing them to drive T cell activation and killing of infected or cancerous cells. For a T cell, even just a few of these interactions against a potent antigen is enough to trigger its activation. Moreover, T cells can tell which antigen raises a red flag even if the difference between them is a single amino acid. This is just the tip of the iceberg for what immune cells are capable of, and it is just fascinating!

What is the ultimate motivation that keeps you going?

Curiosity has always been one of the biggest motivations that pushes me forward in research. I love the process of making hypotheses and testing them, and whenever the hypothesis is proven true, I am filled with joy and satisfaction; and whenever the experiment results show the exact opposite of what I expect, I become more intrigued and just have this urge to find out why. Another motivation is that I really enjoy solving problems. Developing specific methods and tools that would enable other scientists in the field to make discoveries is one big source of joy for me.

How will the Michelson Prize help you with your future research and career?

As an early career researcher, the support from the Michelson Prize will give me a lot of independence, as well as the peace of mind to focus solely on my research. It allows me to pursue this high-risk, high-reward project of developing a novel assay for neoantigen and neoantigen-specific T cell identification. With the support, I will be able to collaborate with others in the field to use different T cell model systems that my lab has previously not had access to. The resources that I can obtain with the support will be a catalyst to accelerate the establishment of a prototype for this assay.