Meet the Pinay scientist helping to pioneer Harvard research on newborns

BOSTON, MA — Joann Diray Arce is among an international group of scientists at Harvard Medical School in Boston who pioneered tools to better understand the immune system of newborn babies.

Principal investigator Dr. Ofer Levy says: this research provides a valuable window into health and disease of the newborn.

“Early life is a time of great risk, for infection, it’s also a time when many vaccines are given, and we want to better understand how the human newborn body is changing early in life and how medical interventions affect that.”

Levy says a key step in this research was the recruitment of Arce – a Filipina scientist who is also a skilled bioinformatician.

“Bio-informatics is the science of solving biological problems using a mathematical and computational approach.”

“That’s the future of science, there’s a lot of big data now you gotta turn the big data into knowledge and that’s where the bioinfomaticians are so important… so we made a big effort to recruit Joann from her graduate program…”

Arce is a post-doctoral scientist in infectious disease at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as at Harvard medical school’s pediatrics department.

She got her PhD at the Brigham Young University in Utah and Hawaii.

Arce’s vaccinology study looks at the genes, proteins and metabolites found in the first week of baby’s life.

Arce says, with about 34,000 newborn deaths in the Philippines in 2015 alone – their study can unlock the reason for these deaths and prevent them from occurring in the first place.

“If we’re gonna know like what happens, what’s the trajectory or what actually changes within that first few days of life we’ll be able to know how to prevent diseases, we’ll be able to know, hey maybe we have to give the vaccinations early or maybe hey, we need to intervene right away.”

Born and raised in Makati, Philippines, she says it was “Sineskwela,” her favorite TV show growing up that sparked her love for science — especially the characters Agatom and Anatom, who shrank and explored science in a molecular level.

Arce is hoping that the vast data her team gathered for 4 years, results in better insights into how vaccines protect.

And with the current measles outbreak in the U.S. and in the Philippines — these Harvard scientists are also hoping their study could pave the way for more effective vaccines, not just for measles but for other diseases such as HIV and AIDS, as well.

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