From Engineering Tissues to Engineering Genomes: sciVelo Alumni Spotlight on Elizabeth (Abby) C. Stahl, PhD

On a cold December day in 2018, the room is warm and full of family, friends, colleagues and mentors, who have assembled to support Elizabeth (Abby) C. Stahl’s big day. As her up-and-coming PI steps out to introduce Abby and lists her many accomplishments during her PhD pursuit, it is hard not to be impressed. Not only had Abby advanced her own training and education, she had also invested her scientific knowledge for helping other researchers advance their science toward clinical and commercial applications to extend the impact of their research.

Abby successfully defended her PhD thesis on December 7, 2018 from Dr. Bryan Brown’s lab of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Her graduate work was focused on characterizing phenotypic and functional changes in tissue-specific macrophage subsets during aging and applying these findings to modulate age-associated inflammation in the liver. Her PhD work also led to deeper understanding of mechanisms associated with various pathologies, including muscular dystrophy and cancer. As a result, she published 14 research articles in peer-reviewed journals and is the co-inventor of two invention disclosures filed through the Innovation Institute. She also worked with Dr. Johnny Huard, Dr. Steven Little, and other seasoned investigators on collaborative research projects, all of which had translational objectives.

Abby served as the president of the Biomedical Graduate Student Association and a member of the University Council on Graduate Studies, where she developed leadership skills and advocated for graduate students. Her involvement with sciVelo began in the spring of 2018, during the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine annual retreat, when Dr. Steven D. Shapiro gave the keynote lecture, “Pittsburgh as the Future of Health Care—The Role of the Local Biomedical Research Ecosystem.” Abby remembers hearing about Dr. Shapiro’s remarks about the new UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center (ITTC) and how sciVelo was involved early on to help scout projects for translational research funding. “Dr. Shapiro’s talk inspired me to put my basic science knowledge to work in order to advance translational research projects at Pitt in immunotherapy and aging. My PhD thesis mentor, Dr. Bryan Brown, was very supportive of these translational research activities and I was able to devote time to help other researchers advance their translational science through my role with sciVelo.”
During her time at sciVelo as a Commercial Translation Architect, Abby worked on translational research projects in immunotherapy, transplantation and molecular biology. She tackled diverse projects, including aiding investigators with customer discovery for the NIH NIDCR Michigan-Pittsburgh-Wyss Regenerative Medicine Resource Center, early-stage investment pitches for the Center for Commercial Applications of Healthcare Data(CCA) of the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance, and helped to construct translational research proposals and invention disclosures for the ITTC, all with the goal of advancing translational research at the University of Pittsburgh. Although she successfully coordinated these projects and developed valuable skills, such as project prioritization, project management and team science, she admits it was challenging at times.
“The most challenging thing about working with sciVelo is the high bar that sciVelo sets for its team members. But this was also one of the most productive experiences thanks to having great mentors to learn from.”

Elizabeth (Abby) C. Stahl, PhD

For early-career scientists considering different career options she recommends “to get involved, not to be afraid of new challenges, and ask for feedback to get better!”

As Abby describes the details of her work during her PhD defense, there are two things that really stand out: her professionalism and her ability to communicate her research very effectively. Abby attributes both skills as direct results from her sciVelo experience:

“sciVelo fostered my career development in several ways. Most importantly to me, sciVelo helped to expand the way I communicated science by simplifying complex ideas into succinct concepts to highlight a commercial application such as a drug or a molecular diagnostic. I gained these skills from both editing invention disclosures and fine tuning translational-research-funding pitch slide decks. As a result, I felt more confident at communicating my perspectives to senior leadership, which I think was a very valuable skill!”

Abby likes the big picture of science: writing research proposals, giving presentations, and managing projects. Although she initially considered careers both inside and outside of academia, she finally chose to stay in academia and continue pursuing translational science. She joined Dr. Jennifer Doudna’s laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley as a postdoctoral scholar in March of 2019. There she studies how the immune system responds to Cas proteins and she engineers delivery vectors to improve the efficacy of gene editing and to further translate the use of CRISPR systems for in vivo applications.
“We have entered an era where genes can be readily edited in the lab. The CRISPR tool kit for gene editing will continue to expand. The real challenge is making these techniques safe and clinically meaningful, which is where I would like to be working a few years from now.”– Abby Stahl, PhD
While Abby enjoys the flexible and independent nature of academic work for now, entrepreneurship is likely in her future. She is certain that her sciVelo experience will help her capitalize on her current translational research and spin off companies from her postdoctoral work. “sciVelo has helped me to communicate my science in new ways and has allowed me to see the potential IP and commercial applications in my own work and the work of others.”

“sciVelo has a two-fold mission: to help investigators contextualize their research toward commercial applications and to mentor Pitt’s trainees in the discipline of academic entrepreneurship. Abby exemplifies the top talent for which we recruit and her leadership in translational science will have global impact through her postdoctoral role at Berkeley and beyond. We are grateful for Abby having applied her talents to the Pitt translational science ecosystem. ” – Donald P. Taylor, PhD, MBA, CLP, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences Translation, Associate Professor, Biomedical Informatics, and Executive Director, sciVelo.

Just as Abby is thankful for her experience at sciVelo, which she describes as “building supportive relationships”, the sciVelo team recognizes Abby’s contributions to sciVelo and echoes the gratitude.