On the surface, our skin is a barrier surrounding our bodies. But underneath those layers, our skin tells a bigger story — it plays a vital role in protecting us from diseases.

Understanding the skin’s immune system is the main goal of Paulina Piesik, a UBC doctoral student working at BC Children’s Hospital with Dr. Jan Dutz. In particular, she’s studying how our skin affects the development of inflammation.

Normally, inflammation is a protective response against injuries and diseases. Excessive inflammation, however, can occur if the immune system becomes overactive and attacks healthy cells, causing autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. Paulina’s research focuses on the role our skin’s immune cells can play in preventing the harmful inflammation that causes such diseases.

Last year, Paulina received a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship for her research on skin immunity. These prestigious scholarships are awarded to doctoral students who demonstrate a high standard of leadership, academic achievement and research potential in their field.

What research are you currently working on?

I study different topical skin treatments that can help the skin’s immune cells promote immune tolerance, a phenomenon that prevents excessive inflammation and damage to healthy cells. In the future, we would like to use this information to develop more skin therapies and treat autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

The goal of my PhD thesis is to understand how skin cells develop immune tolerance, and to find ways to strengthen this tolerance so that it can prevent the ongoing rise of autoimmune diseases.

How did you become interested in the area of Immunology-Transplantation?

Even before beginning my formal academic career, I knew I wanted to do research in immunology because I was frustrated with the lack of treatments available to cure simple allergies. I was formally introduced to this research field through my undergraduate coursework, and was instantly drawn to the mysteries embedded in the microscopic world of our immune cells.

I like that immunity is dynamic and adaptive; these characteristics make the immune system more open to different treatments. Recently, I have been drawn to research that aims to fine-tune the immune system in order to better treat and prevent diseases.

What was the most exciting thing you learned from your research?

Skin immunity is, in fact, more than skin deep!

Our work with ultraviolet (UV) light and topical vitamin D suggests that immune cells in the skin can increase their immune tolerance and transmit it to other tissues, reducing the risk of excessive inflammation throughout the body. We do not yet fully understand how this happens, but I am excited to help unravel this mystery with my research. The notion that skin can generate immune tolerance has exciting applications to any disease – not just those affecting the skin, but also the gut, lungs and beyond.

What are the next steps of your research?

As we know that the number of skin immune cells can increase through skin treatments, the next step is to assess how they can reduce inflammation. To do this, we will study these immune cells in different models and observe their ability to prevent diseases. Additionally, I will be exploring other factors that can be used to strengthen immune tolerance, including the bacteria that live among us, which have been found to also reduce inflammation.

After completion of my PhD studies, I will return to my medical undergraduate education and undergo residency training. Although the branch of medicine I’ll commit to is still unknown, I am very excited to incorporate my research skills and knowledge of immunology into my future career as a clinician-scientist, where I can improve the quality of life for patients.

What drew you to work at BC Children’s Hospital?

BC Children’s Hospital hosts talented researchers in immunology, a field that plays a huge role in treating different autoimmune diseases. The research environment here is ideal for a graduate student such as myself to develop the technical and academic skills needed to succeed. As someone who is particularly interested in skin health and immunity, I was fortunate to connect with my current supervisor, Dr. Jan Dutz, who is a leader in the field of skin immune tolerance.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I focus my volunteer work on science and health communication; for the past two years, I acted as the co-chair for the UBC Students in Health Annual Research Conference and led the UBC Skin Cancer Awareness Network. As for things I do to relax, I like to study Japanese, play clarinet and viola for the MD undergraduate symphony ensemble, and try to teach tricks to my very funny lovebird called Mango.