Graduate Student Spotlight: Christine Isabella

Danielle Randall
April 24, 2018

Prior to coming to MIT with Professor Laura Kiessling's research group in 2017, Christine Isabella had been a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, she also spent six years living in Seattle, Washington. Christine's research is centered around the fact that virtually all calls on earth possess a carbohydrate coat. The array of carbohydrates displayed on the cell surface varies depending on cell type or cell state. These differences serve as cellular identification codes. She is studying how carbohydrate-binding proteins, or lectins, read microbial glycan IDs to influence our microbiota and protect our epithelial surfaces. In particular, Christine studies human intelectin-1 (hITLN1), which is expressed at the mucosal surfaces of the small intestine and lung—two enviornments highly colonized by microbes. The Kiessling group  previously determined hITLN1 is unable to bind known human glycan epitopes, but binds multiple glycan epitopes found on microbes. Christine is interested in better understanding the structural requirements for glycan binding and affinity of hITLN1, as well as the biological function of hITLN1 in the human intestine and how it might use its glycan binding specificity to regulate the composition of the microbiome.

As the subject of April 2018's Graduate Student Spotlight, Christine shares the most beautiful sunset she's ever seen (with evidence!), the museum she'd open if given the funds, the best lesson she's learned from a work of fiction, and more!

1. What artist or band do you always recommend when someone asks for a music recommendation?
It depends a little on what they’re looking for, but I often recommend The Staves, Odesza, James Blake.

2. If you owned a boat, what would you name it?
The Daydrinker

3. How did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
I was interested in the Kiessling group because of the range of research questions being studied and topics and techniques I would be exposed to, but also because the group is filled with awesome people.  The people were important to me since I was going to be spending quite a bit of time with them. I chose my project because it has a little bit of everything I am interested in—glycobiology, human health, biochemistry, immunology, microbiology, and because we’re asking exciting questions about how host factors identify microbes in the gut and how we interact with and regulate our microbiome.

4. Which fictional character would be the most boring to meet in real life?
Dean-Rory’s first boyfriend on Gilmore Girls

5. What problem or situation did TV / movies make you think would be common, but when you grew up you found out it wasn’t?
Adults always have jobs in TV shows and movies, but never seem to spend time working said jobs. I gotta say, I was a little disappointed to recognize how much time and energy adults spend on their jobs irl.

6. If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?
What does intelectin do? 

7. What is something you are obsessed with?
Food. Cheese. And just to clarify, I was obsessed with cheese before I ever moved to Wisconsin.

8. Where is the most beautiful place near where you live?
Near Salt Lake – Any time and anywhere you are lucky enough to see snow on red rock
Near Seattle – the Olympic Peninsula
Near MIT – Tatte Bakery

9. Where and when was the most amazing sunset you have ever seen?
This is an impossible question to answer. Near the top of the list is a sunset I experienced on a backpacking trip a few years ago. I had spent the day hiking to Robin Lakes which are in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington state (as a side note the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is awe-inspiring and contains many of my favorite backpacking destinations), and not long after arriving at the lakes, which are above 6000 ft. elevation and basically at the summit of this mountain, a thunderstorm rolled in. It poured and there was thunder and lightning which was a little scary because I honestly don’t know what you’re supposed to do when you are on the top of a mountain with no shelter in a thunderstorm? We thought there might not be a sunset at all because of the storm, but the clouds cleared just enough and we got one of the most beautiful sunsets. The clouds lit up yellow and pink and purple over the lakes and there were snow covered peaks in the distance. I think I will remember this sunset forever, but truly I love every sunset that I experience on a mountain. There is so much beauty in the experience of a sunset when you feel so close to sky and your surroundings are so quiet and still. 

10. What food have you never eaten but would really like to try?
I’ve never had a cronut.

11. What is the most unsettling film you’ve seen?
Blackfish is incredibly unsettling

12. If you were given a PhD degree (in something other than chemistry), but had no more knowledge of the subject of the degree besides what you have now, what degree would you want to be given to you?
Maybe architecture. I think if I weren’t in science I would want to do something in a field of design and I always have loved the idea of designing homes or buildings.

13. What TV show character would it be the most fun to change places with for a week?
Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie so that I could hang out with Frankie for a week because she’s basically who I aspire to be. 

14. If you were given five million dollars to open a small museum, what kind of museum would you create?
It would be cool to make a “museum” where virtual reality is used to experience and explore rainforests of the world. Maybe even make it more of a 4D experience, minus the rain. 

15. What animal or plant do you think should be renamed, and what should the new name be?
Lilies should be renamed cat assassins.

16. What was one of the most interesting concerts you’ve been to?
I was almost trampled at The National. Because Matt Berninger is crazy. I was in this gated off section of the crowd nearest the stage, and he tried to crowd surf but the crowd within the section wasn’t big enough, so the whole crowd just moved as a pack while he was crowd surfing and my friend and I almost got trampled. It was kind of terrifying. Also, I cried at a Head and the Heart concert... And I saw James Blake in pouring rain which was pretty neat.

17. If money and practicality weren’t a problem, what would be the most interesting way to get around town?
One of my dreams is to live in a floating home in Seattle, probably on Lake Union, and commute everywhere by kayak.

18. If you could only bring one book or movie with you to spend a month on the International Space Station, which would it be?
I’m going to cheat and say the Harry Potter book series because honestly I have never completed it.

19. What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from a work of fiction?
If you’re running from something, don’t go back into the house. 

20. What always cheers you up when you think about it?
My cat, Maple. She’s just really soft, and has the cutest pink nose.

Many thanks to Christine for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!