Susan K. Pierce, Ph.D., NIAID, NIH, is the recipient of the 2020 AAI-BioLegend Herzenberg Award. This award is given in recognition of her fundamental contributions in defining mechanisms of B cell activation and the role of B cell-mediated responses to malaria infection.
Dr. Pierce has focused on B cell biology since her time as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied antibody repertoires and B cell responses under the mentorship of the late Dr. Norman Klinman. In her independent research, she has used innovative approaches, including high-resolution cell imaging to elucidate mechanisms that underlie the initiation of B cell receptor (BCR) signaling, the intracellular trafficking of the BCR, and the generation of B cell memory.
Her group demonstrated the oligomerization of BCRs in response to monovalent antigen and described the role of lipid rafts in BCR clustering and immune synapse formation. She also showed the importance of BCR affinity for antigen and isotype in determining the initiation of response. She studied events downstream of TLRs in B cells and described a mechanism for reduced germinal center response in CpG-stimulating conditions, suggesting that certain adjuvants have a negative effect on B cell affinity maturation. She further focused on metabolic changes resulting from BCR engagement and showed the need for a second signal to rescue B cells from mitochondrial dysfunction and resulting apoptosis.
More recently, Pierce has extended her research focus to study the human B cell response to malaria in a translational effort focused on this disease in Mali. Her group identified a subpopulation of atypical memory B cells with a diminished ability to respond to infection. She has also assessed the therapeutic potential of glutamate inhibitors to treat cerebral malaria, the deadliest form of this disease.
“Dr. Pierce is highly deserving of recognition for her scientific achievement, leadership, and inspired mentorship of scientists at every level of training,” says Silvia Bolland, chief, Autoimmunity and Functional Genomics Section, NIAID. “From my personal experience, I consider Dr. Pierce a role model for any scientist aspiring to a successful career in the sciences. From the first moment of my interview at NIH, I recognized her as a very involved investigator with a genuine interest in recruiting and supporting young investigators.”
Pierce obtained her Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Pennsylvania. After a brief postdoctoral fellowship at Penn, she was recruited to Northwestern University as an assistant professor. She rose through the ranks and held the position of William A. and Gayle Cook Chair in the Biological Sciences at the time of her departure in 1999.
That year, she was appointed to her present position as chief of the Laboratory of Immunogenetics at NIAID. She has been active in the intramural scientific community at NIH, including her service as chair of the NIH Women Scientist Advisors Committee and as a member of the Task Force on the Status of NIH Intramural Women Scientists, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-NIH Research Scholars Program Advisory Committee, and the NIH Central Tenure Committee. She also serves as adjunct professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Among many honors, Pierce is a Distinguished Fellow of AAI, a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and a member of the Henry Kunkel Society. She has received the Weinburg College of Arts and Sciences Award for Distinguished Teaching, a Faculty Research Award from the American Cancer Society, and a MERIT Award from the NIH.
An AAI member since 1979, Pierce has served AAI as a member of the Publications, Program, Nominating, Finance, Public Affairs, and Awards committees; as chair of the Nominating Committee; as a deputy editor and section editor for The Journal of Immunology; and as a distinguished lecturer and major symposium speaker at the AAI annual meeting.