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In 1989, Bruce Walker, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, sifted through a tall stack of applications for a technician’s job in his lab. He immediately noticed the application from Alicja Trocha, a recent immigrant from Poland who had joined the anti-Communist Solidarity movement as a student in the 1980s. Trocha had worked in a lab on the rabies virus—like HIV, a deadly pathogen. She had earned a veterinary degree. And she had done field work with farmers, suggesting a level of real-world maturity not always seen in hot-housed science majors.
Walker interviewed Trocha in German, which she had picked up in an internment camp in Munich after fleeing Poland in 1986. Immediately impressed, he offered her the job. But Trocha, overwhelmed by Walker’s laboratory operation and by the technical terms she would need to master, initially declined. He persisted, and the result has been a professional match made in heaven.
“Alicja has been invaluable to my career,” says Walker. “There is nobody in the world who can clone T cells better, and as my lab manager she has not only set the highest standards for performance and integrity but has done it in the most collegial way.” Today, Walker leads an international research effort to understand how some rare individuals, known as long-term nonprogressors—infected with HIV but never treated—can fight off the virus with their own immune systems. Insights into their biology could lead to a vaccine or new treatments for the disease.
Trocha supports this effort at the lab bench. “Tissue cultures are like animals or kids,” she says. “You have to tend to them, not when you want, but all the time. My colleagues tease me that, since I was a veterinarian, I think of the cultures as my sheep. You may feed them twice a week, but some of them like to eat more, some less. I look at each flask and each culture individually, because they differ in their ability to proliferate. That variability in proliferation might be a clue to why some T cells are effective in inhibiting HIV in the body—and some are not.”
As a lab manager, Trocha also deals with the minutiae of administration, regulatory requirements, and the exhaustive task of tracking a large repository of biological samples with bar codes. She documents growth and maintenance of the T cell clones (T cells derived from one “mother” cell that are 100 percent genetically identical), and she teaches fellows and postdocs how to do the same. She also catalogs the clones and the details of how they were established, so that when clinical questions arise years after, she has the answers.
“I believe in myself because Bruce gave me that chance. I would have never known what I could do if I hadn’t come here,” she says. That brimming confidence extends to the science. “It is bigger than life to be with a group of people who have such bold plans and high aspirations. But this is what I like: trying to make the impossible possible. An AIDS vaccine would change the world.”
Illustration: Chris King