Q&A with graduate student Chris Akinsulie

Chris Akinsulie works in his lab at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine on Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Pullman. (College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren)

Dr. Chris Akinsulie is pursuing a PhD in Immunology and Infectious Diseases under the mentorship of Dr. Susan Noh in the College of Veterinary Medicine. His research could help to identify vaccine candidates to protect cattle from Anaplasma marginale, a common tick-borne bacteria that can cause disease and death in herds.

Chris recently took some time to discuss his research and experiences at WSU.

What are you researching at WSU?

In Noh Lab under the USDA-Animal Disease Research Unit, the broad goal of my research is to identify vaccine candidates that can be used for immunization and protection of cattle from Anaplasma marginale. Anaplasma marginale is one of the most prevalent tick-borne bacteria of cattle globally. The economic burden of the resulting disease called bovine anaplasmosis in the United States alone is about $300 million annually. Previous efforts have identified a number of potential vaccine candidates, but for a rational antigen selection into a global vaccine development, there needs to be a thorough understanding of the components of the immune system associated with protection. My work will help our understanding of the antibody functions that correlate to protective immunity against the disease. Correlates of protective immunity against an infectious agent are measurable immune responses to a vaccine candidate which are statistically associated with protective immunity and thus can be used to predict vaccine efficacy following immunization. Understanding these correlates of protective immunity will also reduce the need for many immunization and challenge trials required to assess the protective capacity of each vaccine candidate. The big picture is to design a safe and effective subunit vaccine against bovine anaplasmosis.

Why did you decide to complete your doctorate at WSU?

I have been very intentional about my education. I bagged a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and a master’s degree in biochemistry from the best University in West Africa, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Then I moved to Europe on a full-ride scholarship from the European Union for a second master’s in infectious diseases and one health at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, which is among the top 20 universities in the world. This was a joint degree with the Universite de Tours in France and the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain under the European Union Erasmus program. For my doctorate, the United States is famous for groundbreaking research, especially relating to infectiology and vaccinology, so that informed my decision to move here. In particular, the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU is truly home to thoroughbred scientists who are leaders in infectious disease research, as evidenced by the quality of scientific publications and innovations coming out from many labs here. Specifically, the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology and the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health here at WSU are both household names when you talk about infectious disease research in the U.S. and globally. Honing my research skills under these experts here would set me up nicely for a lifetime of impact in science and technology. 

What has been your favorite thing about WSU?

The community here is amazing. Everyone truly wants to see you do well. There are a lot of collaborative efforts all geared toward the same goal which is to maintain the quality of science coming out from WSU. One fun thing that I also find cool here is the smile everyone seems to give when you go around campus. Trust me, that could be all that is needed to save another person from a mental breakdown sometimes. The world needs to come and learn from the people here!

What about WSU has surprised you the most?

WSU – and also Pullman – is a really small community, and you might be shocked to know that virtually everyone knows everyone. This has both positives and negatives, but in terms of research, it makes collaboration faster and better.

How has your mentor helped you?

Dr. Noh is a fantastic mentor and a great person. Her mentorship style suits me perfectly. She uses a subtle yet profound means of communication, which I feel is ideal for me. Also, I think it is very important for every budding researcher to have someone who genuinely believes in their ability, and I am fortunate to have that in her. Moreover, she supports my leadership and professional development here at WSU and also nationwide. I was recently appointed as the American Society for Microbiology United States Young Ambassador to Washington State and have gotten some fellowships and awards since coming to WSU, all thanks to her supportive and inspiring mentorship.

What do you hope to do after graduate school?

I used tohave a flair for academia, but that has changed significantly in the last few years. I think research and development fascinate me now, and so I might be looking at getting into the pharmaceutical industry after my program here. I genuinely have a passion for vaccine and drug development, and so that might be my career path after PhD.