Ai Ing Lim, Ph.D.

Ai Ing Lim, Ph.D. 
Postdoctoral Research Fellow 
Metaorganism Immunity Section, Laboratory of Host Immunity and Microbiome 
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases 
National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, USA 
Twitter: @AiingLim 

I view science as an adventure into the unknown. How a single cell divides and differentiates into specialized tissues and organs, constituting a whole organism, is a seminal scientific question that has always fascinated me. Specifically, I have always been intrigued by how a single hematopoietic stem cell can produce diverse immune cells with distinct functions that coordinate to optimally respond to the multitude of infectious and environmental challenges encountered by the host. Despite growing up in Malaysia, where scientific careers were rare for women, I have been determined to pursue my passion to become a scientist and uncover the hidden mysteries of developmental immunology. With the support of several scholarships, I moved to Hong Kong for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The University of Hong Kong. Subsequently, as a European Union Marie Curie Fellow, I joined Prof. James Di Santo at Pasteur Institute (France) for my Ph.D. There, we identified innate lymphocyte precursor from blood of healthy individuals. This precursor can give rise to diverse mature innate lymphocytes within tissues, depending on micro-environmental signals. We defined a cytokines milieu that supports human ILC-poiesis. This finding was pivotal because it challenged the prevailing dogma stating that the fetal liver and adult bone marrow were the sources of this unique precursor. It also sparked my interest in tissue immunity, where I am eager to understand, mechanistically, how immune cells integrate with tissue development, and how tissue micro-environments and resident microbiota reciprocally wire immune function. A critical boost to my scientific career was being recognized as an International Rising Talents by the L’Oreal-UNESCO and the best European Immunology Thesis (Acteria Doctoral Prize) by European Federation of Immunological Societies. These awards together with Human Frontier Science Program fellowship empowered me to join the laboratory of Dr. Yasmine Belkaid at National Institutes of Health (NIH) for my postdoctoral training. The central question that I attempt to address is how do maternal environmental exposures impact on offspring tissue immunity and predisposition to diseases. We recently discovered that a maternally restricted infection can have permanent and tissue-specific impacts on offspring intestinal immunity. This impact was dominantly mediated by a single cytokine, IL-6 acting on epithelial stem cells during fetal development. While this phenomenon can be co-opted by the fetus to develop optimal immune fitness, altered offspring immunity imposed by maternal infection comes at the cost of enhanced susceptibility to mucosal inflammation.