Points of Blue: Lisa Abernathy-Close, Ph.D.

March 30, 2022  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees, ,

Lisa Abernathy-Close, Ph.D., a rheumatology postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Internal Medicine, found herself intrigued by science at an early age. Some of her earliest memories include collecting and documenting dead bugs and fallen leaves — she’d get a particular thrill when new “specimens” were added to her collection. 

Abernathy-Close became enthralled with the cells, molecules and microorganisms living in and around the human body through her love of reading and learning. This prompted her to ask for a microscope for her eighth birthday, which served as a portal through which she explored the invisible world of her childhood environment. The pictures she drew of her microscopic observations served as a primordial lab notebook, which lived in a tall bookshelf in her bedroom, foreshadowing where she is today. 

Abernathy-Close’s fascination with science and disease research took on an even more personal tone when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease — a condition characterized by chronic inflammation of the intestine — at age 9. Her diagnosis was the start of a long road punctuated by numerous stints in the hospital.

Though difficult, Abernathy-Close credited these experiences with shaping her into the resilient person and enthusiastic scientist she is today. Knowing firsthand the ins and outs of living with a chronic disease have provided her with a unique clinical perspective that underlies her scientific pursuits.  

 “The ability to conduct translational and clinical research studying a particular disease, while simultaneously experiencing and fully understanding the impact of that work as a patient, is incredibly powerful and satisfying,” she said.

In honor of Doctors’ Day, here’s a closer look at Abernathy-Close and the important research she and others are carrying out at Michigan Medicine.

Finding community at U-M

Born in Houston, Abernathy-Close spent part of her childhood in Indianapolis before moving to Dearborn, Michigan during middle school. After her undergraduate career, she headed to Detroit for her doctoral training in immunology and microbiology at Wayne State University. There, she used mouse models to study radiation-induced lung injury, which is a common issue for lung cancer patients. 

Abernathy-Close’s graduate training shaped her “expertise in dissecting molecular and immunologic responses to environmental triggers,” which remains a common thread in her research.   

With her Ph.D. in hand, Abernathy-Close set off to complete her postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan.

Why U-M? For her, it all came down to community. 

 “The university is home to the most impressive mix of excellent talent and genuine kindness,” she said. “I believe this combination is unmatched and is the key to leading innovation and fostering positive change in the world.” 

The community has played an integral part in helping Abernathy-Close navigate her training, including overcoming challenges like switching labs (and research fields) midway through her postdoc career. She pointed to her research mentor, Michelle Kahlenberg, M.D., Ph.D., as a key player in her success. 

“Michelle is an incredible source of inspiration for the kind of mentor and scientist I aim to be. I learn something new from her every time we speak, directly from her words or watching her navigate different situations in work and in life. Simply put, Michelle is all that is right and good in this world, and I truly mean that,” Abernathy-Close said. 

For Kahlenberg, the feelings are mutual.

“Lisa is a natural leader and teacher,” she said. “She has an incredible strength of character and is willing to take risks to better herself. I admire that about her.”

Abernathy-Close has also found and fostered community outside the lab as a member of the U-M Postdoctoral Association (UMPDA), where she has served on the board since 2018.

“UMPDA has allowed me to create a network of friends and colleagues while advocating for all postdocs at the university. I have developed a deeper understanding of the diverse needs of trainees in the academic setting at large, beyond myself and my own immediate scientific network,” she said. 

Studying skin disorders in lupus patients 

Throughout her postdoc, Abernathy-Close has stayed true to her interest in inflammatory diseases. As a member of the Kahlenberg lab, she studies systemic lupus erythematosus, commonly known as “lupus.” 

Lupus is a chronic disease that causes widespread inflammation affecting multiple organs. Many people with lupus develop a skin disease called cutaneous lupus erythematosus (CEL), which manifests as rashes or sores (lesions) that can lead to scarring. Even if a lupus patient’s skin appears normal, it differs from the skin of healthy people when viewed at the cellular and molecular level. 

Abernathy-Close aims to understand how cells and molecules in healthy-appearing lupus skin cause inflammation that triggers skin lesions in patients with CLE. She hopes that this knowledge will “help in the development of drugs targeting changes in lupus skin that occur before lesions develop, and ultimately prevent or treat CLE flares.” 

Beyond its clinical implications, Abernathy-Close’s research and time at U-M have provided a solid foundation to achieve her career goals. After completing her postdoc, she plans to lead a research program focused on the fundamentals of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases to improve patient quality of life — a goal that stems from her experiences dealing with, overcoming challenges related to, Crohn’s disease.

“Ultimately,” she said, “my personal, academic and research background demonstrate my drive and commitment to achieve my career and training goals, regardless of obstacles that I may encounter along the way.”

Today is National Doctors’ Day! Throughout the pandemic, the organization’s doctors, fellows, residents and postdocs have provided excellent patient care, education and research to carry out Michigan Medicine mission of advancing health to serve Michigan and the world.

Thank you, doctors, for serving, patients, families, learners and colleagues at Michigan Medicine — and Happy Doctors’ Day!