Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Aaron Esser-Kahn, a Cranbrook Kingswood graduate, had an interest in science as a child that would develop as he got older and became more focused on biology and genetics.
“I was encouraged and directed by people in high school and my parents as well,” said Esser-Kahn who worked in a lab at Wayne State University while in high school as he continued to test the waters.
“It’s hard to know if you like science as far as doing it full-time until you’ve done it,” he said. After earning a BS in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology and a PhD in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, he worked at the University of California, Irvine before becoming an associate professor at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering in Chicago.
Esser-Kahn seems to have found his niche in the department known for its unique combination of engineering, science and immunology. “It really fit the type of research I wanted to do,” he said. “The way my lab operates is to think about how the immune system works. We take a technical approach to examining vaccines against flu and find a new way to manipulate the immune response. We started exploring that for COVID. The pathology for the disease is very different, but from a vaccine point, they are similar.”
Their approach tends to redirect the response when you inject the vaccine and cause fewer side effects.
“You can get rid of side effects and make many conventional vaccines more effective,” he said. “As a second benefit, you can increase the antibodies so that you strengthen the protection when you focus on how to stimulate immune responses.”
In regards to research, his goal is twofold. “One is to develop a vaccine for COVID and other diseases that decrease the side effects while increasing efficacy. The result is something safer and more effective with less doses so that you can shorten the time it takes to vaccinate a population.”
During the pandemic, he has seen colleagues do amazing things in an incredible timescale. “It’s really exciting to watch from the sidelines and see the folks at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) take these ideas and accelerate them,” he said. “If your only limit was time, it’s pretty thrilling to see what human beings are really capable of delivering. They’re saving millions of lives going from the lab into the arms of millions of people every day.”
The lessons he learned early on continue to serve him well today. “Cranbrook shaped my understanding,” he said. “I learned it was just as important to communicate ideas as it was to understand them. That interaction has benefitted me a lot.”
What he enjoys most in his current position is being on the cusp of success. “When we repeat an experiment and we’re 95 percent certain it’s going to work, we’re going from a hunch to getting a real result,” said Esser-Kahn, who also celebrates the successes of those around him. “Equal to that is somebody from my lab getting employed in some meaningful way.”
Challenges come with the territory. “Staying on top of everything that comes at you from every different angle and trying to balance all of the different obligations in a lab can be challenging,” he said. “And consoling people when things don’t work, but making mistakes is a rite of passage. You learn a lot from the failures and what they mean.”
Story: Jeanine Matlow