September 5, 2023

Halle Frey’s passion for immunology

An undergraduate student in the Laouar Lab

Halle Frey has an immense passion for immunology. She is fascinated by innate immune cells, the ones that respond almost immediately to infection –as opposed to adaptive immune cells. The complexity of the immune system is such that she thinks that there will always be more questions to be answered. And to discover one thing about the immune system, however small it might be, would make her really happy! 

“Ever since I was younger, I thought it was so interesting that there were these invisible microscopic processes that allow life to happen, and we don’t even know what’s going on!” said Frey.

She is currently focusing on cellular plasticity —when one cell can modify its phenotype to become similar or identical to another cell— which challenges the definition of a cell itself. In particular, when a natural killer (NK) cell that is very effective at fighting a tumor enters the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment, it transforms into an ILC1-like cell that cannot attack them. However, NK cells and ILC1s look very similar on the surface, and to further understand the plasticity mechanism, it is necessary to first find biological markers that allow scientists to distinguish between the two types of cells. This is what Frey is exploring in Dr. Yasmina Laouar’s lab. She has identified one of such markers that is reliable in different organs and conditions, in the mouse, and she is already preparing a publication of these results. 

Upon being accepted in the Laouar lab during her University of Michigan (U-M) sophomore year, Frey first learned procedures and techniques necessary to perform immunology experiments. She then was offered to take over a research project that was recently initiated by a postdoc who had just left the lab. “I was so lucky to have this opportunity,” she said, “and now, the more I learn about this topic, the more I love it!” As an undergraduate student, she is very grateful for the rare opportunity to design her own experiment, collect data, analyze the results and now prepare a publication about her research project as a first author. 

“Halle Frey made a spectacular presentation [of her research in the undergraduate symposia] and has shown clearly substantial achievements from the 18 months she spent in the lab. She worked very hard and did an outstanding job…All the work she showed was from her own experiments and analysis, all of it!” said Dr. Laouar. 

Biology has always been of interest to Frey, but she discovered immunology only during her sophomore year at U-M when she took Dr. Laouar’s class. She was hooked right away by the complexity of the field and its importance to keep us all alive. She finds the biological balance between the activity of different cells very beautiful and wishes that immunology be introduced to students as early as high school, rather than at a 400-level course in college.

Prior to joining U-M, Frey has attended two high schools, one in Portage, Michigan, where she took her humanity classes, and the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center that offers classes for students particularly interested in the STEM fields. Frey found her place there, among students and teachers all passionate about science and biology. She feels that this training prepared her well to be in a lab and flourish at U-M.

Asked for advice to high school students, Frey reflected upon her own trajectory, and how she was affected by a rejection from a lab. This experience makes her very appreciative of where she is now as she probably wouldn’t be a first author if she had been accepted in that other lab. She is looking forward to discovering where she is going to be in two years from now, and how much she will have achieved.

“Halle Frey working with Yasmina Laouar exemplifies the best kind of magic that can happen when an undergraduate student gets a chance to work in a laboratory and light that spark for scientific discovery. For many scientists, there is no greater thrill than figuring out a biological mystery and no greater joy for a mentor than to see that spark lit in a trainee. Halle has definitely kindled that spark here in M&I and we can’t wait to see what her work will teach us in the future!” said Beth Moore, Chair of the Department of M&I. 

Frey will graduate with a BS in Microbiology in Spring 2024 and is currently applying for PhD programs either in immunology or in microbiology and immunology. She would be very glad to continue at U-M but, as a native Michigander, she is also considering a change of environment  and studying in a large city. Frey is highly motivated as she believes that a PhD is the most challenging thing she can do. She also realizes that it takes years to master the scientific method. But “no matter how small, to discover something new is really why I want to do a PhD!”

While Frey is very focused on her classes and lab work, she also exercises regularly at the gym and enjoys fiddling with a guitar.


 Halle Frey (left) and Dr. Yasmina Laouar (right)