Get to know PhD Student – Saoirse Benson


In this month’s newsletter, we would like to introduce PhD student, Saoirse Benson from the College of Medicine and Public Health.

Saoirse’s recently submitted thesis, “Characterising the mechanisms through which the microbiota influences immune responses to vaccination in early life” received outstanding results from the examiners. We asked her share what led her to a Phd and why it is important, the most enjoyable and hardest parts of a PhD journey and what the future holds.

Saoirse has recently accepted a position as a Medical Laboratory Scientist – Clinical Trials Lead at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Congratulations!

Tell us about yourself

I completed my undergraduate degree in Immunology in Trinity College in my hometown, Dublin, Ireland. I moved to Sydney for a research internship in UNSW in 2017, which solidified my passion for research. Another Irish student in UNSW was discussing my research interests in immune microbiome reactions with me and suggested I contact Prof. David Lynn in Adelaide, as his research was closely aligned with my interests, and the rest is history! Outside of research, I love riding my bike, hiking, and going to see live music.

What led you to undertake a PhD? What inspired or motivated you?

I wanted a career that would give back to the world. Undertaking a PhD in a highly translatable field was an exciting way to do this. The prospect that my project could lead to ways in which to improve vaccine responses, and in turn, global health by even a fraction was highly motivational.

What was the topic of your PhD and why was it important to you?

I studied the mechanisms by which the microbiome influences immune responses to vaccination in early life. This topic is important to me because it is often those with poor responses to vaccination  that are most in need of protection, particularly individuals living in low- and middle-income countries. In addition, if we can better understand immune microbiome interactions, this research also opens possibilities for better treatments for a whole range of diseases in which the microbiome has a role in modulating.

Have you published anything?

I have co-authored publications in esteemed journals such as Nature Reviews Immunology, Cell Reports, Cell Reports Medicine, and the British Journal of Medicine. Read my Nature Reviews Immunology review here and expect to see a few more papers out soon!

David J. Lynn, Saoirse C. Benson, Miriam A . Lynn, Bali Pulendran.  Modulation of immune responses to vaccination by the microbiota: implications and potential mechanisms. Nat Rev Immunol (2021).

Tell us about your research

Antibodies are essential for vaccine mediated protection against infectious disease. However, antibody-mediated responses are highly variable between individuals and different populations. Our lab previously found that, in mice, antibiotic-driven dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in early-life leads to significantly dysregulated immune cell responses to vaccines that are routinely administered to infants worldwide.

To investigate whether this is also the case in human infants, we established the Antibiotics and Immune Responses study to assess the effects of antibiotic exposure on the infant gut microbiota in a cohort of 226 healthy infants. I carried out immune profiling which revealed that infants exposed tontibiotics during delivery had a modest reduction in cells associated with protection from allergy compared to unexposed infants.

I also found that germ free mice, with no microorganisms living in or on them, had impaired antibody responses to the PCV13 vaccine compared to normally colonised mice. I carried out comprehensive immune cell analysis which revealed that germ free mice had significantly impaired formation of key structures for antibody prodtuion called germinal centre after PCV13 vaccination. My data suggest that microbiota-targeted inventions may be beneficial to support optimal responses to vaccination.

What was been one of the most enjoyable and hardest parts of the journey?

The most enjoyable parts of this journey have been connecting with other PhD Students in Adelaide and around Australia and experiencing the exciting research environment here in Australia at various meetings and conferences. I have also enjoyed becoming an expert in my PhD topic and passing on my skillset whenever there is an opportunity to do so.

One of the hardest parts of my PhD was being an international student in Australia during the pandemic. I was one year into my PhD in March 2020, so I was committing to staying and getting it done, but not knowing when I would see my family again was distressing and very lonely at times.

What was highlight of your student life at Flinders?

The highlight of my student life at Flinders was the network of other researchers I connected with here. Everyone I met at Flinders has been extremely supportive, collaborative, and open to engaging in interesting discussion about our respective research.


How did your supervisors support you during your candidature?

My supervisors went above and beyond to support me during my candidature. My principal supervisor Prof. David Lynn maintained weekly meetings with me for nearly the entirety of my candidature and was extremely prompt in reviewing drafts of my thesis. My co-supervisor Dr. Miriam Lynn was an incredible mentor in the lab and worked late hours with me during many critical experiments. Both my supervisors also cared deeply about my generally PhD experience and supported my attendance at both local and interstate conferences.

How did you overcome any challenges of doing a PhD?

The key to overcoming most of the challenges of my PhD were persistence and collaboration. There are always going to be moments in research when things don’t work the way you had planned them, but learning to keep going despite these setbacks is the biggest key to my PhD success. Discussing various challenges with more experienced members of my lab was also extremely valuable, and I am very grateful to have had such a supportive team.

What advice would you give to those who are about to undertake a PhD?  

Take the time to find a great supervisor and talk to other people within their lab or research team before taking on the project. It’s even better to talk to past students, if you can! Finding great supervisors and a supportive environment can often be more important in your PhD success than the project itself!


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