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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Erica Ollmann Saphire

President and CEO, La Jolla Institute for Immunology

As president of CEO of the La Jolla Institute of Immunology and as a practicing researcher, Dr. Saphire wears two important hats. Her research studies the molecular relationships between pathogens and their hosts, learning about where viruses interact with the immune system and where they are vulnerable to being neutralized.

"There are a lot of things that have been under scientists’ noses for generations we haven’t thought about,” she says. “I don’t think anybody ever thought that their cell line had a sex before.” 

- Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire

Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire Juggles Two Very Interesting Hats

Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire has a very difficult job. As President and CEO of the La Jolla Institute of Immunology, she oversees one of the country’s leading research centers in the field of immunology, complete with an $90 million annual budget and over 180 postdoctoral fellows. She is also a practicing researcher, though her work in that field doesn’t seem to get as much attention. “Everybody always asks me about my CEO role,” she laughs. “I would love to talk about my research!”  

She was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 

Dr. Saphire studies the relationships between viruses and their hosts, learning how these pathogens interact with the immune system and where their vulnerabilities are. She is an expert in capturing the structures of viral molecules through high-resolution imaging, using a powerful electron microscope called Titan Krios. These images work like blueprints and can reveal where the virus is vulnerable to human antibodies. It’s an incredible piece of equipment in the hands of the researchers at La Jolla, which, according to Dr. Saphire, is perfectly placed.  “La Jolla Institute has the brainpower, the tools, and the technology to address the question, ‘Why do we get sick?’” 

Running an institute like La Jolla is a daunting feat, but Dr. Saphire began implementing groundbreaking changes as soon as she arrived. With 25 world-class scientists running labs, she launched a process to foster greater collaboration across the research labs. This approach allowed researchers to find a throughline – the differences in how cells that were xx (female) and cells that were xy (male) react to diseases. “There are a lot of things that have been under scientists’ noses for generations we haven’t thought about,” she says. “I don’t think anybody ever thought that their cell line had a sex before.”  

The implications for immunology are profound, and could help explain the differences in how women and men experiences diseases. For example, women and men have different kinds of heart attacks, and women are more prone to autoimmune diseases – diseases in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues, perceiving them as threats.  

Dr. Saphire’s path to the lab is deeply rooted in her upbringing. Both of her parents were public school teachers, so they had summers off, and the family’s long camping trips inspired a deep appreciation for the natural world. When she discovered biochemistry as a way to understand the secrets of the universe contained within a single molecule, she found a way to express that love of nature in the lab.   

She embarked on a career in structural biology, driven by a fascination with unraveling the puzzles of viruses. She recalls her inspiration for her dissertation: “I was at breakfast with my cornflakes reading the New York Times and I read that Dennis Burton and Carlos Barbas had discovered an antibody that could neutralize most kinds of HIV.” She knew that understanding more about that antibody would be an essential step to discovering a vaccine.   

There have been many more epiphanies along the way, and Dr. Saphire is excited about the potential for her work and the Institute’s contribution to the field of immunology. “I am more excited to be a scientist now than I have ever been,” she says, “and that’s even after working seven days a week to juggle both of my hats.”  

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