Pierette Appasamy, Ph.D.

Photo of Pierette Appasamy
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Joined Chatham: 2007


Development and evolution of the immune system, skin and mucosal immune responses, stress and the immune response, psychosocial well-being in undergraduate student athletes, teaching the “big picture”


Spending time with my family, playing tennis, running, and reading


I majored in biology (minor in Chemistry) at a small liberal arts college with dedicated professors and I still keep in touch with my academic advisor, a botanist, to this day!  My favorite classes as an undergraduate were embryology, bacteriology and immunology.  I first became fascinated with developmental biology research as an undergraduate student when I participated in a summer REU at Oak Ridge National Labs, where I worked on a project evaluating the effects of the environmental pollutant, benzo (a) pyrene on development of pre-implantation embryos.  Upon return from that formative experience, I applied to developmental biology PhD programs and selected the program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia which had a strong developmental biology and teratology research program. I had wonderful mentors as a PhD student and my thesis project focused on understanding the role of signaling molecules, especially prostaglandins, in development of T lymphocytes in the mouse thymus.  The next exciting stage of my research training began when I did a three-year post-doctoral fellowship in the lab of a T cell biologist, Mike Prystowsky, in the Dept. of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.  His lab was full of undergraduate and graduate students as well as medical students, residents and fellows and was very lively!  I worked on the regulation of expression of cell cycle proteins in activated T lymphocytes and learned the molecular biology techniques that I still use today in my lab.  I was awarded funding from the NIH and the American Cancer Society for my postdoctoral work. 

After completing three years as a postdoctoral fellow, my husband and I moved to Pittsburgh where I joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as a faculty member in the Department of Pathology. I was also a member of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, which had just been formed, which was full of immunologists mainly focusing on cancer immunology research.  As a faculty member at Pitt, I taught Immunology to medical students and built up my research program studying the development of a subset of T lymphocytes called gamma delta T cells.  I also began studying the role of a cytokine that had recently been described, interleukin 7 (IL-7), which we and others showed is necessary for gamma delta T lymphocyte development.  I was funded by the NIH for this work, and I enjoyed working with a variety of students and fellows and other faculty members. 

Later in the 1990s, I transitioned to doing some administrative work with the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, Health Sciences, and later fully transitioned a new role as Director of Special Projects for the Office of Research for the Health Sciences at Pitt.

My interests in teaching and research re-emerged as I joined Chatham in 2007, first as a part-time faculty member and later as a full-time faculty.  I am now using frogs in my research, rather than mice, but continue to study gamma delta T cells and the role of IL-7 in T cell development.  I thoroughly enjoy teaching and working with students in the classroom and the laboratory.  I also enjoy helping students achieve their goal of attending medical and dental school as the Pre-Med Advisor at Chatham.

  • B.S., Biology, cum laude, Xavier University (Cincinnati, OH), 1982
  • Ph.D., Anatomy & Developmental Biology, Thomas Jefferson University (Philadelphia, PA), 1988
  • Post-Doctoral Fellowship, Immunology, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, 1987-1990
  • Recipient of Research and Sabbatical Fund Awards
  • Recipient of American Association of Immunologists Undergraduate Faculty Travel Grants
  • Recipient of Mary S. and John Kostalos, Jr. Fund Award
  • Recipient of Chatham University Technology Fellowship Award
  • NIH R29 Grant, Principal Investigator, Mechanisms of IL7-Induced Pre-T Cell Gene Expression
  • MacArthur Foundation Grant (Yale Subcontract)
  • NIH R01 Grant Co-Investigator
  • American Cancer Society Grants
  • Wendy Will Case Cancer Fund, Inc. Grant
  • National Leukemia Association, Inc. Grant
  • Member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Member of the International Society of Developmental and Comparative Immunology
  • Member of the American Association of Immunologists
  • Oral presentation at the Cytokines 2020 Virtual Meeting of the International Cytokine and Interferon Society, Nov. 2, 2020. Characterization of IL7R alpha in Xenopus tropicalis: implications for evolution of cytokine signaling systems. Pierette M. Appasamy, Lisa A. Lambert, John C. Sammons, Kristina G. Daskalova and Megan Kostan.
  • Invited speaker, Immunology Teaching Interest Group of the American Association of Immunologists at the annual AAI meeting in Honolulu, May 9, 2020: “Avoiding the “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem in teaching immunology”. Cancelled because of COVID 19 pandemic.
  • Characterization of IL7R α in Xenopus tropicalis: implications for the evolution of cytokine signaling pathways. Pierette M Appasamy, Lisa A. Lambert, John C. Sammons and Kristina G. Daskalova. J Immunol May 1, 2020, 204 (1 Supplement) 29. This work was invited for a presentation at the meeting of the American Association of Immunologists in May 2020, but the meeting was canceled due to the pandemic.
  • Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Immunologists, Austin, TX, May, 2018. Costan, S, Appasamy, P.M., Edenborn, S., Ubinger, E., and Carillo, A. Differences in psychosocial behavior, salivary IgA, and oral microbiota in student-athletes and sedentary college students”.
  • Invited speaker, Immunology Teaching Interest Group of the American Association of Immunologists at the annual AAI meeting in Seattle, May 14, 2016: “Analogies and Role-Playing to “Experience” Immunology in an Undergraduate Immunology Course”.
  • Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Immunologists, Seattle, WA, May, 2016. Coyne, W. E., Foulkrod, A. M., Lambert, L. A., Appasamy, P.M. IL-7 receptor pathway in Xenopus laevis.
  • Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Immunologists, Seattle, WA, May, 2016. Foulkrod, A. M., Geibel, G. M., Kongprachaya, Y., Appasamy, P.M. Immunol. Expression of T cell genes in adult Xenopus laevis and TCR gene expression in the Xenopus tadpole tail.
  • Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Immunologists, New Orlean, LA, May, 2015. Geibel, G., Kongprachaya, Y., and P.M. Appasamy. TCR gene expression in lymphoid and mucosal tissues of Xenopus laevis”.
  • Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Immunologists, Pittsburgh, PA, May, 2014. Y. Kongprachaya, D. Wilson, and P.M. Appasamy. Semi-quantitative analysis of T cell receptor (TCR) a and TCRg gene expression in Xenopus laevis: a novel animal model to study gd T cells.

I have three major areas of laboratory research and one area of pedagogical research.

  • Understanding the evolution and development of gamma delta T cells. All organisms have defense mechanisms against pathogens. The most sophisticated of these, the adaptive immune system, is found only in vertebrates, and uses white blood cells, the most important of which are lymphocytes.  Lymphocytes provide highly specific and long-term memory responses to pathogens.  Gamma delta T cells are specialized non-conventional lymphocytes that provide immunity where pathogens first gain entry into the body, including the skin, and mucosal tissues (gastrointestinal, urogenital and respiratory tracts).  My previous work focused on understanding how development of gamma delta T cells is controlled at the molecular level.  I have expanded this focus to studies of the evolution of gamma delta T cells.  This is an important problem since gamma delta T cells are central to the skin and mucosal immune response. The frog model system is especially useful for studies of development and evolution of the immune system because of similarities in its immune response compared to mammals, and it is amenable to manipulation at the larval stage.  After several years of working out molecular biology techniques in my lab at Chatham, our initial studies on gamma delta T cells in frogs were recently completed. I have developed expertise in microsurgery of the tadpole thymus (where T lymphocytes develop), and we can now create frogs that lack T lymphocytes, essential for understanding the functions of these cells.  We have begun to examine the role that gamma delta T cells play in frog skin wound healing, for which there is evidence from other labs.  I have developed a model of wound healing in frogs and have a study in progress to evaluate wound healing following elimination of T cells.  This area of research has significant impact on developing more effective wound healing treatments.
  • Understanding the evolution of an extracellular signaling molecule, interleukin-7 (IL-7), and its receptor (IL-7R).  As mentioned above, I have carried out an extensive body of research on IL-7 and have published invited review articles and a book chapter on IL-7 and the IL-7R.   My work at Chatham is focused on understanding the evolution of the IL-7R signaling system, using Xenopus frogs as a model system.  This is an important problem since disruptions of IL-7 signaling in humans result in immunodeficiency, and alterations of IL-7 signaling are implicated in certain autoimmune diseases and cancer.  My laboratory has recently cloned the IL-7R cDNA from Xenopus tropicalis frogs and we are currently examining the expression of the IL-7R gene in various frog tissues. The next phase of this work involves identifying potential ligands for the IL-7R, other than IL-7, which may not be present in the frog genome (our unpublished data).  This is a collaborative project with Dr. Lisa Lambert, who is working with me on structural analyses of the frog IL-7R.  This project is moving forward very rapidly and is very exciting.   This project will provide many opportunities for training of current and future students and is expected to significantly advance our understanding of the evolution of the adaptive immune system.
  • Understanding the interplay of stress, exercise, immune function and the microbiome in college students.  Because of the current epidemic of mental health issues among college students, these studies are extremely important. Associations between exercise, behavior, immunity and the microbiome have been suggested by a number of studies, but few of these have examined these factors together or studied them in college students.  In 2017, I published my first set of results examining these factors in female college athletes (Lamb et al., 2017). We found that in-season student athletes had less anxiety, higher levels of salivary IgA, and altered salivary microbiota, compared to student athletes in the off-season.  While there are many possible explanations for these results, we have hypothesized that exercise and an active social support network plays in enhancing psychosocial and immune health in students.  These studies have been extended in two new studies which were recently completed and are being prepared for publication.  The first used a Qualtrics survey of male and female undergraduate students (athletes and non-athletes) at Chatham, to assess correlations between participation on organized athletic teams versus independent exercise activities, and psychosocial well-being (anxiety, depression and stress).  We have identified differences between males and females in psychosocial measures and have observed that female non-athletes have the highest levels of anxiety, depression and stress.  The second study evaluated female student-athletes and non-athletes, for anxiety, depression and stress, as well as salivary IgA and the salivary microbiome (collaboration with the Center for Medicine and the Microbiome at the University of Pittsburgh).  Our results demonstrate reduced anxiety, depression and stress and an altered microbiome in students actively participating on a college athletic team.  Our more recent studies in this area have examined the negative impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on student mental health measures.
  • Pedagogical research: Immunology is often a difficult subject for students to grasp.  I have experimented with different approaches to teaching immunology to undergraduate and graduate students.  Some of the successful approaches include the use of group work, “acting out” immune events, use of analogies, and mastery of “big picture” immune processes.    I also have an active research interest in the use of technology tools in the science classroom, and have focused my efforts on examining the utility of an image annotation tool, ThingLink, in the Histology classroom.