Professor Leonie Taams
Professor of Immune Regulation
Director of the Centre for Inflammation Biology & Cancer Immunology
Chair MSc Immunology Assessment Sub Board
Deputy Program Director
Immunology, Infection & Inflammatory Disease
Date started at King’s
Challenges and achievements
When and what was responsible for you becoming interested in your academic discipline?
Since I had my first immunology lectures in the second year of my Medical Biology programme, I have been fascinated by Immunology. The immune system has developed really sophisticated mechanisms to battle pathogens while maintaining a healthy body. Once I started working in the lab as part of my research projects I was completely hooked on being a scientist.
What are your research interests, and what drew you to this area?
My research is focused on the cellular and molecular immunological mechanisms that regulate inflammation in human health and disease. I am interested in understanding how inflammation is switched on and off, and why this goes awry in chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis.
Tell us about a couple of your achievements that have been particularly rewarding.
One of my career highlights has been the identification and characterization of so-called ‘regulatory T cells’ in humans, whilst being a postdoc in Professor Arne Akbar’s lab in London. These naturally occurring cells are specialized in regulation of the immune response, and had been described in mice previously; however, their human equivalent had not yet been reported. It turned out that there were a handful of groups working independently on this topic at the same time, and by and large we all showed similar findings over the course of a 6 months period. It was very exciting and rewarding to be involved in the initial description of something that is now textbook immunology.
While at King’s, my lab was one of the first groups to describe the cellular mechanisms that induce human Th17 cells. Th17 cells are cells with potent pro-inflammatory activity and over the years, we have investigated extensively the induction, function and regulation of these cells in the context of inflammatory arthritis, leading to some very interesting observations and discoveries. My lab has always had a very ‘translational’ approach and I find it very rewarding to be able to put some of the pieces of the puzzle together in a complex human disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.
More recently, my lab has shown that TNF inhibitor drugs, which are commonly used in the treatment of several chronic inflammatory diseases, can promote the expression of an anti-inflammatory chemical called interleukin-10 in human immune cells. We are working hard to dissect how this happens and what this means functionally, in terms of inflammation biology but also for patients.
Do you have professional role models? Who are they and what do you find inspiring about them and their accomplishments?
Having the right mentor or role model at the right time can be really instrumental in one’s career development. Role models and mentorship can take many different shapes and I have been lucky to have worked with and be surrounded by some very inspiring people at all stages of my career. These people have (perhaps unknowingly to them) given me the belief, knowledge and skills required for an academic career. Advice that has been most useful to me often came from small comments during informal chats, and from observing the people that I respect and admire.
What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
My very supportive partner and the many people who believed in me and gave me confidence and opportunities.
What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job at King’s?
Working in an inspiring environment where people work towards common goals. And seeing the students who I teach and the people in my lab develop into confident and independent individuals who are ready to take on the next challenge in their careers or lives.
How do you balance the various demands of a career in academia: research, teaching/learning, administration?
I always remember my PhD supervisor saying that if people think that a PhD is hard work, then they better prepare themselves for what comes next. I think the word ‘demanding’ is certainly an appropriate word to use when describing the tasks, duties and responsibilities of an academic. You have to keep on top of things, as science is highly dynamic and competitive, but also the higher education landscape is constantly evolving. The way I try to balance it all is to work hard, prioritise, be selective at the right time, and to delegate where appropriate to the many talented people around me – but also to accept that there is a limit to what one can do.
How do you balance an academic career with life outside the workplace?
Not always so well. Like many other academics, I often work at weekends and in evenings. But I have got a fantastic family and a great circle of friends, who help me put work into perspective.
What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to share with others?
That there are so many helpful people who are willing to share their experiences and advice, all you have to do is ask.