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Marion Pepper, PhD, is an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Immunology at the UW School of Medicine. She started her new role as chair in May 2022 after serving for a year as interim chair.

Pepper has 78 published papers and recently published in the journal Cell for her work on immune memory with COVID-19 infection or vaccination. Her lab, The Pepper Lab, studies immune memory to design better vaccines and block the formation of immune memory to prevent allergic disease.

Pepper and her colleagues in the Department of Immunology have made an impact on our understanding of COVID-19 and immunological responses through their work. Learn more about the ongoing research and find out Pepper’s goals as chair.

When did you know you wanted to be an immunologist?

My grandfather, who was a medical doctor, used to tell me interesting facts about the immune system. He did a lot of research and started my interest in immunology. It wasn’t until after college that I took some immunology classes and really confirmed that was what I wanted to study.

What are your research interests?

My lab studies immunological memory, which is when the immune system responds more robustly to something the second time compared to the first time. This is important not only for vaccines, as we’ve all learned over the last couple of years, but also because it is the underlying principle that allows allergic responses to happen by building immune memory against allergens. My lab focuses on building immune memory against infectious diseases and suppressing immune memory to allergic responses.

We pivoted our research in early March 2020 to study the immune memory that’s formed in response to mild COVID-19 infection. And that resulted in a first paper in the journal Cell and then a second paper, also in Cell, trying to understand how immune memory formed if you have an infection before being vaccinated, with just being vaccinated alone, or infected alone, and how those immune memory responses differ.

Early on in the pandemic, there was an overwhelming fear that this virus was significantly different from many of the viruses that we’ve seen before. Although it’s a new virus, meaning that the actual parts of the virus are new, it behaves immunologically like other viruses that we’ve encountered in the past. There were indications that people weren’t going to form strong immune memory and we decided to look into that to see whether that was the case, especially in individuals who had mild COVID-19. Our research showed that immune memory does form and will protect people and we now know that it is very good at protecting people against severe disease and hospitalization in response to subsequent infection.

Hearing that was a relief to a lot of people. People are still getting infected but knowing that with vaccination they’re not getting as serious symptoms and disease as we saw in those first waves of COVID-19 was a relief. It was important to do a granular scientific survey of the immune system and how it was responding to SARS-CoV-2 to allay some concerns. We are still not out of the woods yet, but people are not dying at the same frequency as they were before thanks to vaccines and the immune system.

What type of impact do you hope your research has?

My hope is that our research reveals key aspects of how the immune system responds to infections and allergens so that we can make better vaccines or therapeutics to treat human disease. For example, we are trying to understand how the immune system can optimally fight off the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria so we can make better malaria vaccines.

What are your goals as department chair?

Immunology is a fantastic department. I like to think that we’re small but mighty. We’ve recently had some retirements and our faculty numbers have diminished a bit, so we are looking to rebuild the department and hire new faculty, which we’re excited about.

The pandemic made it clear how immunology is integrated into every facet of human health and how we need to better connect our department to other departments within UW and the other research institutions in Seattle. Building a more robust network for the Department of Immunology is one goal and also making sure that immunology is an inclusive science and that we not only bring in a diverse population of students and faculty members but that they are well supported once they get here.

What should employees know about the Department of Immunology?

The findings from every lab in this department influence how different medical interventions, vaccines and treatments to a wide variety of medical conditions from cancer to autoimmune disease are generated. We are often thought of as a “basic” science department and although we’re not clinicians, our research has an enormous impact on the future of medicine and human health. Our findings provide the fundamental knowledge and direction for future clinical applications.

I would encourage people to learn more about us. The pandemic has raised interest in immunology in ways that we could never have predicted. If people want to connect or have questions, please reach out. We have a vibrant and fun group that wants to interact with people across the UW.

What are you most excited about as chair?

I’m excited about keeping this active group of researchers doing great science and ensuring that we have the resources we need to do these pivotal studies that are driving our understanding of the immune system and the next medical breakthroughs.

I’m also excited about hiring new faculty members to take the department in new directions. And I look forward to making stronger connections with clinical colleagues and other departments that we historically have not interacted with.

What’s your leadership style like?

I’m a team-based leader. I’m fortunate to have been hired at the same time as many of my colleagues; we are a young department with almost all associate professors and a few full professors. My colleagues are smart, successful scientists and good people, and I’m lucky to rely on them for advice and input. We will work together as a group to make this an even better department.

What’s new and exciting in the field of immunology?

Over the last 15 to 20 years, there’s been so much emphasis on the breakthroughs in cancer immunology. The only silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it also highlighted the importance of immunology in developing tools to fight infections like monoclonal antibodies that we can now generate rapidly and that can be used as therapeutics. Infectious disease research, in addition to cancer research, is now at the forefront. I think there will be many breakthroughs in vaccine technologies, as we saw with the mRNA vaccines, as well as the potential to use modular types of therapies as drugs for infectious diseases, which was not prevalent before, so I’m excited about that.

What are you reading, watching or listening to?

I’m finally reading “Where the Crawdads Sing.” I’m really enjoying it; it’s been a good summer read.

What are your hobbies outside of work?

Pepper’s daughters and family pup on a walk.

I love spending time with my family. I have two teenage daughters and we are trying to maximize time together before they go off to college. We have a sailboat that we sail on when we can, and we ski in the winter. We are an active family: we like to hike, get outdoors and spend time together.