Four U of T PhD graduates recognized as Future Leaders in infectious disease by the Emerging and Pandemic Infections Consortium
A smiling woman with a grey sweater and a smiling man wearing a toque and blue coat

(l-r) Eric Armstrong, Jonathan Burnie, Catharine Chambers, Pailin Chiaranunt

March 19, 2024

By Betty Zou

The Emerging and Pandemic Infections Consortium announced today the winners of the 2024 Future Leaders Prizes.

The $5,000 cash prizes celebrate the most outstanding PhD graduates who defended their infectious disease-related thesis in 2023. One winner was selected from each of the four research streams — applied, clinical, fundamental, and population, global and public health — based on the scientific excellence and impact of their research as well as their leadership in other areas, such as advocacy, mentorship and science communications.

“We were blown away by the exceptional calibre of the nominees this year,” says Scott Gray-Owen, EPIC’s academic director and a professor of molecular genetics at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

“While it was a difficult decision, we could not be more thrilled by the winners chosen by our review committee. These four talented young researchers embody the collaborative spirit, community-mindedness and intellectual rigour that will advance our field as we work towards more effective and equitable solutions to infectious threats.”

Meet the recipients of the 2024 Future Leaders Prizes below.

Eric Armstrong, clinical research stream

When there is an overgrowth of certain bacteria in the vagina — a condition known as bacterial vaginosis — it can lead to inflammation in the genital tract and a higher risk of contracting HIV. There are a number of treatment options for bacterial vaginosis (BV), including antibiotics and an emerging category of probiotics containing live bacteria, also known as live biotherapeutics. However, their impact on HIV risk was not known.

That was the question that Eric Armstrong set out to answer during his PhD with supervisor Rupert Kaul, a professor of medicine and immunology at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a clinician scientist at the University Health Network (UHN).

Working with collaborators around the world, Armstrong showed that treatment with a live probiotic containing a single strain of Lactobacillus reduced genital inflammation for at least three months post-treatment. Other key findings from his work uncovered how antibiotic treatments for BV lowered inflammation in the genital tract and why BV recurs after antibiotics in some women but not others. Taken together, Armstrong’s research provides compelling evidence to support the use of live probiotics to fine-tune the vaginal microbiome and reduce HIV risk.

In the next step of his career, Armstrong is completing a postdoctoral fellowship with Bryan Coburn, a clinician scientist at UHN, where he will be using his translational research skills to explore strategies to limit the growth of drug-resistant bacteria after antibiotics.

“This award motivates me to be a leader in the scientific community by performing clinically impactful research and inspiring future generations of researchers through teaching and mentorship.”

Eric Armstrong, 2024 Future Leaders Prize recipient

Jonathan Burnie, applied research stream

The proteins on the surface of a virus enable it to get inside host cells and provide critical targets for vaccines and therapeutics. Despite their importance, the methods available to identify and study these proteins have been insufficient, providing only a partial view into their richness and complexity.

For his PhD work with Christina Guzzo, an assistant professor of virology at U of T Scarborough, Jonathan Burnie developed new protocols for an emerging technique called flow virometry that gives a detailed look at the surface proteins on individual virus particles. The method enables researchers to examine thousands of virus particles at a time and quantify the number and type of surface proteins on each virus. Using this new technique, Burnie discovered 60 new human proteins on HIV’s surface and uncovered new insights about human and viral surface proteins’ roles in HIV infection.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Burnie is now building on his doctoral research by applying flow virometry to study surface proteins on coronaviruses, findings from which could pave the way for a universal coronavirus vaccine.

Outside of his lab work, Burnie is also celebrated for his efforts to advance equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in science. He was a strong advocate for underrepresented students on U of T’s Positive Space Committee and his department’s EDI committee. He also volunteered his time as a mentor for racialized youth through several community- and university-based programs.

“I hope that the next generation of scientists can enter a workforce that is more diverse and equitable so they can focus on new ideas and discoveries, and not barriers to their progress.”

Jonathan Burnie, 2024 Future Leaders Prize recipient

Catharine Chambers, population, global and public health research stream

Prior to her PhD, Catharine Chambers worked as an epidemiologist with the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, where her portfolios included antimicrobial resistance and influenza and emerging respiratory pathogens. Her experiences there gave her a unique perspective and drive in pursuing her doctoral research on human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine uptake and effectiveness in young gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (GBM).

Supervised by Ann Burchell, an associate professor of family and community medicine at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine and a scientist at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at Unity Health Toronto, Chambers showed that more than one in four young, sexually active GBM in her study data had a vaccine-preventable anal HPV infection, despite targeted HPV vaccination programs for this high-risk population. Her work also found that vaccine effectiveness was higher when the immunizations were given at younger ages or soon after first sexual activity. These and other findings from her PhD thesis are being used by public health experts and decision makers in Canada and around the world to develop evidence-based HPV vaccination guidelines.

Chambers is also recognized for her commitment to community engagement in her research, and to science communication and knowledge translation. She served as deputy editor of Healthy Debate and has written numerous articles about the COVID-19 pandemic for The Conversation and Healthy Debate, which have collectively garnered over 2.5 million views.

In her current role as an applied public health science specialist at Public Health Ontario, Chambers is leveraging her epidemiological expertise to provide advice and support to the Ontario Immunization Advisory Committee, helping to shape vaccination guidelines in the province and beyond.

“I will strive to find more effective ways for transforming scientific evidence into public health practice.”

Catharine Chambers, 2024 Future Leaders Prize recipient

Pailin Chiaranunt, fundamental research stream

The microbiome, or the collection of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies, plays a critical role in health and disease. After learning about the microbiome as an undergraduate student and then falling in love with immunology as a research technician, Pailin Chiaranunt became interested in how the microbiome and immune system interact with each other, particularly in the gut. This led her to U of T to pursue a PhD with Arthur Mortha, an associate professor of immunology at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

Chiaranunt’s doctoral research comprised two projects. The first uncovered how ATP produced by gut microbes drives macrophage development in a specialized niche within the gut. In her second project, she showed how a protozoan species native to the gut strengthens host defense against Salmonella infections through immune activation by ATP. Together, Chiaranunt’s work revealed a new and exciting host-microbiome communication pathway that relays metabolic cues from gut microbes to antimicrobial defense from the host.

In addition to her remarkable research contributions, Chiaranunt undertook numerous leadership roles during her graduate studies at U of T including co-editor-in-chief of IMMpress Magazine, co-vice president of the Life Science Career Development Society and subcommittee lead on the department of immunology’s Wellness, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Committee. She also spearheaded SciChat, an outreach initiative that delivered public lectures about immunology and other health sciences topics at public libraries and community centres.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Francisco, Chiaranunt is expanding her scientific horizons to neuroimmunology. Her new research project will examine how infections lead to respiratory and cognitive impairments through crosstalk between the immune and neurological systems.

“My long-term research mission is to understand not only how infectious immunity affects brain function, but also how the brain senses and controls the immune system during and after infection.”

Pailin Chiaranunt, 2024 Future Leaders Prize recipient