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MPower Professor Profile: Christopher M. Jewell, Ph.D.

Inaugural MPower Professor Employs Interdisciplinary Collaboration to Fight Cancer and Autoimmune Disease

Dr. Chris Jewell
Dr. Chris Jewell

In November of 2021, University of Maryland, College Park President Darryll J. Pines and University of Maryland, Baltimore President Bruce E. Jarrell named eight professors as the inaugural MPower Professors. This award from the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State (MPower) recognizes, incentivizes, and fosters faculty collaborations between the College Park and Baltimore campuses. 

Selected for his commitment to interdisciplinary and interprofessional collaboration, Dr. Christopher M. Jewell serves as Minta Martin Professor of Engineering in the University of Maryland, College Park’s (UMCP) Fischell Department of Bioengineering. Dr. Jewell is also a Research Biologist with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, and a Fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the Controlled Release Society, and the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy. He has also been named a Miegunyah Distinguished Faculty Fellow by the University of Melbourne (Australia).

Dr. Jewell’s work has been supported by $25M in funding, resulting in over 120 manuscripts and patents, including papers in ACS Nano, Cell Reports, Nature, Nature Biotechnology, Nature Materials, PNAS, Trends in Immunology, and others. Some of his awards include being honored by the White House as a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the United States' highest honor for scientists and engineers in the first half of their careers. He has been selected as a Damon Runyon-Rachleff Innovator, appointed as an Associate Scientific Advisor for Science Translational Medicine, received the Outstanding Lectureship in Drug Delivery from the Materials Research Society, the NSEF Young Investigator Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), and been selected as the University of Maryland’s Graduate Faculty Mentor of the Year. He was also named the state of Maryland’s Outstanding Young Engineer by the Maryland Academy of Science.

Can you briefly describe the type of research you do?

My lab works at the interface of immunology and engineering. In particular, we are working to create effective and specific treatments for cancer and autoimmunity that are safe. There are no cures for most of these terrible diseases, and even the best treatments have side effects that can be serious. Our team is working to leverage the unique properties of engineering materials—polymers, lipids, scaffolds—to study and control the immune system. A common goal of our work is to turn on immune responses to attack tumors during cancer, or to turn off immune responses against self-tissue during autoimmunity, all without causing side effects.

Dr. Chris Jewell (center) demonstrates lyophilization at Maryland Day
Dr. Chris Jewell (center) demonstrates lyophilization at Maryland Day

Through my work, I engage the community in multiple ways. A few examples include:

  • Activities at Maryland Day that use fun experiments to demonstrate technologies we use in vaccine and immunotherapy development, including controlled release (exploding baking soda/vinegar membranes) and lyophilization (liquid nitrogen ice cream!). Around 500 attendees participated.
  • Workshops on culture, careers, and mentoring at the University of Melbourne in Australia while I was appointed as a Meigunyah Distinguished Fellow (and leveraging some MPower Professor funds!). Some of the topics included strategy tools, creativity in research and careers, and developing interdisciplinary research teams. 
  • Fitness fundraiser to raise funds for Alex's Lemonade Stand Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

What drives you to do this research?

The heart-breaking stories I hear from patients, the excitement of figuring out tough problems, the fun of working in diverse teams and watching early career researchers grow, from elementary school to postdoc, and the hilarious things that happen during lab life and social events. 

What did it mean to you personally to be named an MPower Professor?

I was really honored. To be recognized as a leader and excellent researcher across departments and campuses is something that is really special! It means we are doing work that is impactful with a high level of rigor. It's something our team works on everyday. Since the Minta Martin honor has a focus on collaboration, it was also really a time to celebrate our collective accomplishments that are so much better than any of us could individually achieve.

How do you collaborate with researchers outside of your discipline?

Lots of structure! Over the past decade we've really refined—through lots of failures!—our research and collaboration pipeline. We have online planning frameworks that our lab uses to run our subgroup meetings. They encompass all lab activities (research, career, etc.). To form new collaborations, we usually strategize what is needed in a project or to solve a problem, and likewise, are often approached by others for the same reason. I think some of the key things we try to understand upfront are what the gaps in the field are, and how a paper would fit in and where it would be published; this is another way of saying, what are the biggest problems or knowledge gaps? This is really something that needs some attention early on, although of course research always evolves. Additionally, we try to take time to read and discuss literature from other fields, and go to meetings outside our discipline. If you can actually speak your collaborator's language, it's a game-changer for effective communication and collaboration. Writing reviews together can also be a tangible strategy to build understanding, and to show productivity early on to support grant applications. Perhaps most importantly for me, I've found being organized, having regular meetings (and periodic joint lab meetings) is very useful. These need to have agenda, action items, and timelines. I worked at the Boston Consulting Group in a different life, and I learned so much there about project management and execution that has just been incredibly useful everyday in my lab. We do a lot of training in my teams around these areas, so hopefully I can save folks some of the failures I learned from!

Why is this collaboration important to you?

Three reasons in my mind. First, the problems in many (all?) fields now are so complex, that you really need expertise that spans disciplines. At the same time, everyone on the team needs to have sufficient expertise and invest time to learn enough to be conversational in each person's expertise. Second, having multiple brains tackle the same problem; troubleshooting ideas helps spur creativity and solutions, even though there might be 3 or 4 people with different expertise. Third, it's really fun! You get to crack jokes, share in the wins, attend a vast range of social and networking settings; such amazing opportunities that teams and collaborations create. Of course you can also learn so much from more junior and senior colleagues about mentoring, lab management, career advice, etc.  

Please name the researchers you have worked with on MPower collaborations:

Our award started in November, so the list is a bit fluid of what was started new vs. what has been enhanced, but to name a few:

  • Jonathan Bromberg (University of Maryland, Baltimore)
  • Stuart Martin (University of Maryland, Baltimore)
  • Richard Pierson (University of Maryland, Baltimore, now Harvard)
  • David Benavides (University of Maryland, Baltimore) 
  • Mitch Wallen (Baltimore VA Medical Center)
  • Walter Royal (Baltimore VA Medical Center)
  • Thomas Gebhardt (Peter Doherty Institute, Australia)

How do the funds awarded from MPower support your research and help facilitate collaborations with other researchers?

The main critical aspect is the flexible nature. We have a lot of funding, but it is typically earmarked to specific projects or scopes of work. MPower support allows us to conduct out-of-scope studies that might be high risk but high reward, conduct our key clinical studies aimed at translating our research into the hands of patients with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, and to disseminate work at conference venues in the U.S. and abroad; most grants have comparatively little travel funds. Lastly, the flexibility enables advanced training opportunities for folks on our team, a key area to make sure we are generating the next group of world class leaders, researchers, and mentors and placing them in high impact teams for their next steps. All around, just an incredible honor!  

What are the next steps for your research?

We are broadening into new disease areas (e.g., diabetes), pushing some projects toward human trials (e.g., multiple sclerosis), and growing our team's expertise (in silico/modeling, big data/single cell profiling) with new research instruments and resources.

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