Kawthar Machmach Leggat

KawtharTitle: Scientist, Innate Immunology Laboratory

Question: What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
Growing up in Morocco, I was always attracted to science and medicine. My mother, as with many mothers in developing countries, wanted me to be a medical doctor. She was very supportive of my interest in sciences and purchased several medical encyclopedias for me. I spent most of my time reading and learning about the human body and diseases. Even though I was very young, only 12 years old, I used to diagnose sick family members, and sometimes I was right! This used to give me more confidence and fuel my eagerness to learn, which has never fade but instead grew stronger with time. Obviously, my mother was not very happy when I decided to follow a different path and joined a PhD program after finishing my bachelor’s degree. But I knew that I wanted to keep learning and asking questions.

Q: What advice do you have for younger girls who want to pursue research careers?
A: I am the outlier in my family as I chose a completely different path than what was expected from me. So, my advice for any young girl, wherever you are from, is to never give up on your dream. Life is like an adventure, and you should not be afraid to try, and more importantly, do not be afraid of failure, because it is nothing but a learning experience!


Q: What has been a highlight of your time since working with MHRP?
A: I absolutely love working at MHRP. The diversity of people and expertise, all working together with a common goal to develop a safe and globally effective vaccine for HIV, makes it like a dream for me. My PhD studies were on the spontaneous control of HIV infection and working at MHRP in the innate immunology laboratory, gives me the chance to participate in different projects to study innate responses that are important for the control of HIV infection.

Q: What kind of projects are you currently working on? 
 I am currently working and several projects, all of them focused on the Natural Killer (NK) cells responses. One of my projects is to determine whether specific NK cell phenotype and function is associated with the development of broadly neutralizing antibodies. I am also, interested in studying memory NK cells responses in natural HIV infections and post-vaccination.

Q: What is your background prior to joining MHRP?
I received a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology and a master’s degree in Immunology from the University of Granada, Spain. Afterward, I joined Dr. Leal’s laboratory at the Virgen del Rocio Hospital in Seville, Spain, to start my PhD by working on HIV controllers. After graduating, I decided to focus on HIV vaccines and moved to Montreal, Canada, to develop a Dendritic cell-based vaccine at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute. Later, I joined Dr. Hartigan O’Connor in the California National Primate Center and had the chance to participate in a variety of vaccine related projects for HIV cure and prevention. I joined the MHRP family in 2019 as a scientist to study the role Natural Killer cells in HIV infection. My objective is to develop new strategies that will harness NK cells and leverage their ability to kill infected cells to improve vaccines or immunotherapeutic approaches capable of eliminating HIV and other virally infected cells.