Solving the mystery of B-cells

Social media sensation Dr Anna Yu shares her journey at ANU and the mystery that surrounds her research. Dr Anna Yu JCSMR B cell

ANU graduations always create a hype throughout the university, but this year the hype of students graduating in science, health and medicine went well beyond our campus.

Netizens across the country and the world went crazy over a viral video that showed parents and partners attempting to explain the complex study subjects of their graduating loved ones. ‘Can your family explain your PhD?’ was viewed by over 6.5 million as of late July on Instagram and Tik Tok with millions more reactions, comments, re-posts and shares.

Anna (L) and her husband Kyle (R) in the social media clip which went viral. Source: scienceanu instagram 

Viewers loved watching as families stumbled through explanations of their loved one’s theses. It made for a lot of fun and an internet sensation overnight. Among these social celebrities is PhD graduate Yu Zhijia (Anna Yu) from the John Curtin School of Medical Research. The video shows her husband, Kyle Chen, holding their baby as he attempts to explain: “I know it’s something… B-cell, something… something.”

So, with the nation now on tenterhooks (and wondering all about B cells), Anna is shedding some light on her research and her journey as a medical researcher at ANU.

“I recently completed my PhD in Immunogenomics – it essentially explores the relationship between the immune system and genetics, and how mutations affect the immune system,” she said.

“A healthy person will have a robust immune system to defend against bacteria and viruses. However, some of us are born with mutations that cause a dysfunctional immune system, making us prone to infections and susceptible to getting sick easily.”

“B cells are a type of white blood cell that have the potential to make antibodies. Without them, we cannot produce antibodies to protect ourselves from bacterial and viral infections,” Anna explained.

Anna (L) with ANU Chancellor, the Hon Julie Bishop (R) at the graduation ceremony 2023. Image: ANU Media 

Anna’s work has helped identify a gene mutation in a protein in humans called IRF4, which can lead to sickness.  The study, carried out collaboratively with her team, also discovered a new human disease caused by the mutation, which is proposed to be named ‘Multimorphic IRF4 CID’ or MICI. This will ultimately help clinicians diagnose patients with the mutation. The paper she co-first authored and published in Science Immunology has helped solve the mystery of how a mutation in gene IRF4 causes immunodeficiency.

Professor David Tscharke at the Division of Immunology and Infectious Diseases of JCSMR was one of the inspirations behind Anna’s PhD. She was drawn to the subject area due to his eloquent speech about immunology and viruses, and he would go on to help her secure a position in the lab of his colleague and Associate Professor Anselm Enders, where the focus is the investigation of novel pathways regulating B cell development and function.

“I still remember my first day at the lab meeting when I had no idea what my lab members were discussing. I was panicking, but over time, I began to understand more and more, and eventually I was able to complete my PhD,” said Anna.  

Honours graduation in 2017

Anna clearly admires the patience and thoughtfulness of her supervisor, Associate Professor Enders, and she references his high standards in conducting experiments and performing analysis. “He’s very careful when drawing a conclusion based on experimental data. I’ve learnt a lot from him,” Anna said.

She also recalls how her fellow lab members supported her, especially during tough times and the encouragement she received from them to continue her research. Anna is grateful for the collaboration and support from her colleagues at JCSMR.

ANU was Anna’s priority when it came to selecting universities., She cites the academic support, the natural beauty of the campus and the light Canberra city traffic as a major drawcard.

“The professors are very nice and approachable. I also loved the ‘Shut Up and Write’ program, which helped me a lot in my PhD writing,” she said.

Speaking about the fame brought about by the viral video, she said it was quite unexpected.  

“The video is quite hilarious. My husband said he felt bad about only remembering the ‘B cells’ part. But I’m actually surprised that he remembered that,” Anna giggled as in the video.

Anna with her husband Kyle and son Xuezhi

Although it was amusing to see Kyle trying to explain her study, the struggle would be similar for most loved ones. In all seriousness, this is life-changing and life-saving knowledge she has gifted the world through her PhD and it has the potential to help change the landscape of medical research.

Anna is determined to continue in her path to change the world of medicine through research. However, before she does so, she has advice for those that will follow in her footsteps.

“It can be overwhelming at the start of your studies and the evolving nature of medical research can make it even harder. Lean in to friends and family. I remember one time I couldn’t make my experiment work. I called my parents in tears and said ‘I want to quit’. Instead of pressuring me, they responded with kindness and encouraged me to sleep on it. Interestingly, I felt better the next day and decided to keep trying. I found it was always my loved ones who would hold me up and encourage me when I was down.”

Anna with her parents

She also suggests a balance in life: “I think all PhD students should find enjoyment in life while pursuing their studies. Personally, I love dancing and snowboarding – another great thing about Canberra – and I believe these activities truly helped me release a lot of pressure.”

Anna with her husband Kyle

Anna is from a small town in Inner Mongolia, China. She commenced her studies in 2016 and graduated in July 2023. Anna met her husband at ANU and they now have a 10-month-old boy, Xuezhi Chen. Anna’s husband, Kyle, is a Master’s graduate in computer science at ANU… And he now knows how to explain her research.