Ragon Institute Women Make a Difference: Galit Alter

Date: April 6, 2022 By: Lori Slavin

Galit Alter, PhD, a Core Member of the Ragon Institute, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Co-Director of the Harvard University Center for AIDS Research, is an immunologist and virologist who has never been one to back down from a challenge. As an undergraduate at McGill University, Alter chose microbiology immunology from her course catalog because it “sounded really hard.” Eventually, she “fell in love with viruses,” explaining that “the realization that tiny little viruses, even single proteins like prions, can essentially remodel your entire brain and possibly take over the entire planet was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.” 

While at McGill, Alter met an infectious disease doctor who had treated “Patient Zero,” the flight attendant once believed to be the first HIV patient in North America. After impressing upon Alter that HIV/AIDS was the toughest challenge of their lifetime, the doctor put her to work researching an aspect of whether HIV-infected patients’ cells were successfully recognizing and controlling the virus. She observed HIV cells through a microscope to determine just “how dead the cells were: a lot dead or a little dead?” Although she claims to have been “terrible” at the task, this experience sparked her passion for understanding the intricate life and death battles at the cellular level that ultimately determine the actual life or death of a patient. 

Alter has been at the Ragon Institute since its inception in 2009 and over this time has expanded her research from HIV to other viruses and pathogens including Ebola, TB, malaria and SARS-CoV-2. She has developed a novel approach, called systems serology, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning and other formats to understand how antibodies interact with the whole immune system. Alter’s groundbreaking work has discovered a host of important and previously unexpected functions of antibodies, a discovery offering new insights into the issue she first addressed as an undergraduate: why some patients with a particular disease control or even clear it, while others succumb to it. Her ultimate hope is to leverage those differences to develop novel cures and vaccines for many deadly diseases.

Alter loves being a scientist because she “can ask questions no one else is asking” and “will be appreciated for [her] discoveries,” allowing transcendence from bias or discrimination. She counsels her 10-year-old twin girls to “be brave and ask questions because defiance leads to innovation.” She says “it is incredible to get paid every day basically to challenge other people’s knowledge in order to have an impact on health, the most precious commodity we as a human population have.” Alter also appreciates that she is never alone in science. She considers it a “team sport with no borders,” in which scientists from all over the world speak the same language, something the COVID-19 pandemic has only strengthened. The Ragon Institute honors and salutes Galit Alter, our very own scientist-warrior making a huge difference in the battle against disease.

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