Pouria Tajvar. Photo: Tord Christer Magnusson

Meet the WASP Postdocs

WASP has today more than 450 researchers, of which around 50 are Postdocs. Some are international recruitments and others come from the Swedish academia.

Pouria Tajvar started his Postdoc in February 2022, and is working in the project “Understanding the human immune cell interaction network”. He is under the supervision of Professor and WASP Faculty Dimos Dimarogonas at KTH, at the Division of Decision and Control Systems. Pouria moved from his home country Iran to Milan, Italy, for his Masters in Automation Engineering in 2015. Working with the literature review for his Master thesis he came across the work of Associate Professor and WASP Faculty Jana Tumova (KTH). He reached out to her, and a short time later, Tumova became his supervisor for a PhD at KTH and Division of Robotics, Perception and Learning.

Now, he is enjoying ice skating in Sweden, and trying to understand the world of the human immune cell interaction network.

What is your Postdoc project about?

Our main project is trying to understand the human immune cell interaction network. The immune system consists of multiple different cell types and each of those have different functions. We have, for example, cell types that are early responders. Basically, those are the ones that identify a pathogen or an abnormality in the body, and then they communicate with other cell types in the immune system by producing some proteins. There are other cell types that are, for example, targeted attackers, who attack certain passages. What we are trying to do is to basically understand these communication channels to see what proteins are being used – we refer to these as the signaling pathways. We want to understand the bigger picture on how this response to a pathogen is organized in a system.

Why did you join WASP?

I did join WASP as a Postdoc, but I learned about it first when I was a PhD student. In our department we had other students who were affiliated with WASP, and it had a good reputation for the courses it was organizing. They were dealing with cutting-edge topics in AI and autonomous systems, but also had an exposure to the Community – the researchers in Sweden and the industry. It came to me that it really cares about both collaboration among its community and it really cares about impactful research. I thought it was a great program to join and I would like to thank my supervisor Dimos Dimarogonas who trusted me with this project.

How is WASP supporting your research?

Well, of course it funds my research, but what I think is the most important aspect is that it has enabled collaborations that it is hard for me to imagine would have happened otherwise. Now we are working with the immunologists from the Karolinska institutet and it’s hard to perceive that we would have come in contact in another way. Especially this joint call with Data-Driven Life Science I think has started so many probably long-lasting collaborations.

What do motion planning and control for robots (your PhD) and the immune system have in common?

I was very surprised when I first learned about the immune system and how much it has in common with my previous research, given how diverse the applications are.

I was working with robots and mostly with data-driven control for the robots. And the problems I was working with there was to try and model the parts of the robot interactions that are difficult, from a physics perspective. You need to have access to interaction data to be able to model that. For example, when a robot is trying to cut a vegetable, it is contacting the environment and then breaking it, and this is difficult to model without having access to the data. This is the first common denominator for both systems. You need to have data to be able to model it.

The other main aspect is that this data is not simply given to you, you must strategize your interaction with the system to be able to get data that is informative enough. So, in the case of the robot, you need to basically plan for the way you want to interact with the environment so that you can learn something from the data. In terms of the immune system, it is something that is recently made possible. The gene and cell knockouts – editing the gene of a cell by removing genes and see how it is responding or removing cells of a certain type from a sample – is basically a similar problem in the sense that you want to strategize for maximizing your information gain.

Why is your current research important?

Getting this understanding of the immune system can help immunologists, of course, but also clinicians and even the pharmaceutical industry. It can let you identify susceptible people to certain pathogens. For example, if there’s another pandemic and you want to have a strategy for vaccination, you want to be able to know like who the most susceptible people are and vaccinate those first. Also, for other diseases, like autoimmune diseases and cancer, having this understanding basically allows you to target your intervention.

How can your research affect our lives?

The long-term impact is that we will overall be better equipped and to address the current threats to our health, but also the future ones. If there’s going to be another pandemic, we will be better equipped to address that by knowing our own bodies better and how we can basically armor our own immune system to tackle these issues. Another aspect is the mathematical tools that we are developing along the way. They can be useful also to a wider range of this problem of data-driven decision making in network systems and it can be a biological system, an environmental system or even a social system. The main tools that we are developing here are basically allowing us to be able to systematically identify the gaps in our data and understand the limitations of our data. This is important because if we are going to make a model using our data and we’re going to use that model to make some decisions, it is very important to know – what are the limitations of this model? How much can we trust it? I think our tools really contribute to this and enables us to collect data to basically cover this gap and make better.

Can you see any unintentional risks with your research?

That is a very important aspect to consider. When I was working with safety in robots, it was quite more straightforward. The thing about safety is that you know that there are uncertainties in your system. But you basically want to have a bound on that uncertainty. For example, if I take an action. I’m not sure what is exactly going to happen, but it is going to be within a set of possible outcomes and if all those outcomes are safe then it is OK to perform. It is much more difficult to say the same thing about an intervention in the immune system. But our current research at this state is of course in vitro, so we are not treating living individuals. We’re taking blood samples and treating those samples in a blood culture system. So, there is not such a threat immediately, but it is important that whenever we are reporting a result, we also report the uncertainty that is inherent to our data.

Where do you see your research field in ten years?

I anticipate that this knowledge of cell interactions will have quite matured by then to an extent that it can be seen as an asset in informing the predictive models of the immune response already. Although I can imagine that it will still have some way to be fully developed. I also think that there will be significant research focus on integrating aspects. Because, when you’re looking at the immune system or any biological system, we’re basically looking at it with very different lenses. At some level you are trying to simulate the interactions between molecules at the protein level, and on another level, you want to see how the populations of certain cell types are changing in immune system. Also, you’re looking at these gene expressions and signaling pathways and each of them are giving us very important information. But I think as we are gathering this information more and more it will also be more important to be able to integrate them to get the overview or the bigger picture better. So, – given how fast each of these separate measurements and studies are developing – I think integration will also be an important part in ten years.

What do you think of Sweden so far?

It has grown on me! Stockholm in general has very good vibes. There is a lot to do in the city, both in terms of activities and nature. It can be tough sometimes during the winter with the long dark hours. But now I have learned how to ice skate, so I also enjoy the winters.

Published: May 23rd, 2023

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