By Charvy Narain
What do a mathematician, an epidemiologist, a vaccine developer, a protein crystallographer and a whole bevy of immunologists and infectious disease specialists have in common? Answer: they’re just some of the Oxford University researchers coming together to fight the novel Coronavirus outbreak which has (to date) killed thousands of people across the globe, with tens of thousands of people infected.
The outbreak, which the World Health Organisation has now declared a global health emergency, is caused by a new type of an old foe: coronaviruses are common enough to be one of the causes of the common cold. But they can cause a range of respiratory symptoms from mild to serious – it was a coronavirus that was responsible for the 2002-2004 outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), though the novel coronavirus (until recently known as 2019-nCoV, though now dubbed SARS-CoV-2) has already outstripped the SARS death toll in the three months since it has been active.
Like the SARS virus, which was traced back to civet cats, this previously undescribed SARS-CoV-2 is also likely to have been transmitted from an animal to humans – most people in the first cluster of cases worked at or were frequent visitors to one single seafood market in Wuhan in China. But it is now clear that SARS-CoV-2 can be also transferred from an infected person to another person, and these human-to-human transmissions are how the outbreak is currently spreading.
Mapping the disease
Dr Moritz Kraemer is the Branco Weiss Fellow at the Oxford University Department of Zoology, and part of the Oxford Martin Programme on Pandemic Genomics. Like many of the Oxford University researchers currently working on the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, he is a veteran when it comes infectious disease: he has previously crowdsourced data to track the spread of Ebola and Zika in real time, and his modelling of yellow fever in Angola showed how ecological and demographic factors contributed to that outbreak.
Dr Kraemer is a spatial epidemiologist interested in how the spread of infectious diseases interacts with geography. Together with researchers at Harvard Medical School, Northeastern University in the US, the Boston Children’s Hospital and Tsinghua University, he has produced a real-time map of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 (the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2), with all of the data publically available: you can watch how the virus spread from Wuhan in China to the 28 countries across the world that have so far reported COVID-19 cases.
What sets this map apart is that instead of being based on total counts of how many cases of COVID-19 are found in each country, it is based on a ‘line list’ – detailed information about the demographics of each confirmed case of COVID-19. This includes whatever information is available about their age, sex, the date their symptoms started, where they live, and where they might have travelled to.
What I hope to do is to build a baseline for evidence-based decisions.
This kind of information isn’t always easily available in the midst of an outbreak, but analysing it can yield all sorts of insights. Dr Kraemer says: “We can, for example, analyse this data to find what the early signals of local transmission might be, such as a change in age distribution shifting from people in their early 40s up to people in their late 40s.”
Based on this kind of detailed line list data, researchers have been able to estimate the incubation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the age distribution of people affected, as well as track how time elapsing from symptoms appearing to hospitalisation and testing is changing as the outbreak evolves.
All of this is not just an academic exercise and having this information can help governments and policymakers make the most effective decisions. For example, by combining the data on the number of cases in each Chinese province plus its population size with air-traffic patterns, Dr Moritz and his colleagues were able to work out the risk for the SARS-CoV-2 being introduced to countries in Africa.
There are no reported cases of COVID-19 in Africa yet, but the limited health infrastructure in many countries means that an outbreak here may have particularly devastating consequences. By combining information about risk of transmission versus the country’s preparedness, the researchers were able to identify that Ethiopia and Nigeria may be particularly vulnerable.
In the lab
One of the scientists helping make sure there is accurate, detailed data about SARS-CoV-2 is Dr Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease Global Health at the Nuffield Department of Medicine. Dr Horby went to Vietnam, which hosts a large scale University health research unit, for a short WHO secondment as part of the response to the SARS outbreak – and ended up staying for nine years. He came back just in time for the Ebola outbreak, and set up clinical trials for a candidate Ebola treatment in the middle of an active epidemic.
He now leads the Epidemic Research Group at Oxford, which aims to reduce the impact of epidemic infections through ways of doing research that work even in epidemics, and which is currently working with the Chinese government and researchers. One of the things that this group is doing is developing and distributing an electronic case record form, which will help get the detailed and accurate data that maps and models are so dependent on.
Dr Horby and others are also a part of a band of researchers working away in labs to understand the virus, and hopefully, develop a treatment. Dr Horby is part of a clinical trial currently testing two potential drugs for treating COVID-19, using the same technology they used to generate a vaccine (currently in testing) for the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, which was also caused by a coronavirus.
These are different approaches, but as the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak unfolds, scientists are keen to have many potential weapons in their arsenal to fight it.
And while Professor Sarah Gilbert and her team (also at the Nuffield Department of Medicine) are currently working on a potential vaccine (they’re using the same technology they’ve already used to generate an in-testing vaccine for the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, which was also caused by a coronavirus), other researchers at the Nuffield Department of Medicine are going right back to basics: Professor Dave Stuart and Yvonne Jones have been collaborating with researchers in China to successfully decode key structures related to SARS-CoV-2 at the atomic level. They are now starting work to understand the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 ‘spike’ protein, which will help map antibodies to the virus.
Understanding these spike protein antibodies is also the main focus of immunologist Professor Alain Townsend. Professor Townsend, based at the Radcliffe and Nuffield Departments of Medicine, is also working on a vaccine based on this same spike protein.
The maths of disease
How the outbreak might unfold is one of the questions that Dr Robin Thompson, Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, is interested in. Dr Thompson is based at the Mathematics Institute and like Dr Kraemer, Dr Thompson is an epidemiologist.
But while Dr Kraemer is interested in using the tools of epidemiology to capture trends in an outbreak as it happens, Dr Thompson is interested in using maths to develop models of what might happen in a disease outbreak. To do this, researchers take real-life data about an outbreak, and then build a mathematical ‘model’ that is consistent with the data and captures its key parameters. But in a sort of thought experiment, you can also run these models forward in time, to get a forecast of what might happen in the future.
We can use our mathematical simulations to show that if you can quickly isolate infected people after they develop symptoms, you are likely to prevent sustained outbreaks in new countries. This is true even if some people might be infectious before they have any symptoms.
Since the model is a mini-simulation of the world, researchers can try out all sorts of potential interventions and find out what effect these would have.
This is not to say that mathematical epidemiology can provide a Minority Report-style accurate future prediction. Dr Thompson says: “One challenge we have is that in the real world, there is only one realisation of what might happen, while a model gives us several possible scenarios. So it’s hard to make specific predictions early in the outbreak about precisely how many cases of COVID-19 there will be, or exactly when an outbreak will be peak.”
However, what these models do yield is a range of predictions, and what they are useful for is estimating probabilities after specific events – such as how likely a sustained outbreak might be if SARS-CoV-2 travels to a new country.
The current UK government advice is for anybody showing even mild symptoms to self-isolate for 14 days, and Dr Thompson thinks that this is good advice.
He is more equivocal about the current advice for people to self-isolate if they’re coming from Wuhan or Hubei province, even if they have no symptoms. Dr Thompson says: “It’s quite a drastic measure. While containment is easiest when case numbers are low, this needs to be balanced against the effect on people who are quarantined when they are almost certainly not infected.”
This answer from mathematical modelling, like a lot of research in this area, depends crucially on open sharing of accurate data. For example, in the unlikely scenario that COVID-19 transmission from non-symptomatic people becomes common (there are now doubts about even the one confirmed case of non-symptomatic transmission), the answers from the modelling will change substantially, and Oxford University researchers are prepared – what happens in the case of non-symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 transmission is being looked at by one of Dr Thompson’s students.
But whatever the eventual scenarios, open data sharing will continue to be crucial, and is of benefit to researchers across the globe. “Open data sharing from very early on was one of the key features of our map,” says Dr Kraemer. “We made the data behind it immediately available.” This data has now been used by researchers from another group, for example, to show that once a place has three cases of COVID-19, there is a 50% chance of the infection becoming established in that population.
Professor Peter Horby and his colleagues are aiding this data sharing effort by developing and freely distributing a free toolkit of SARS-CoV-2 clinical research resources to anyone studying the outbreak. This set of flexible research protocols aims to help the research community generate more precise and robust conclusions faster.
At some point, the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak will end, and researchers will need to be ready for the next big one. Sharing information is likely to be crucial to doing this, and an editorial from Nature had a simple message for researchers: “Work hard to understand and combat this infectious disease; make that work of the highest standard; and make results quickly available to the world.”
Please note, the information in this blog is correct at time of posting. The University will communicate significant research developments as they emerge.
Eleanor Stride has taken an unconventional path to becoming one of Britain’s leading scientists. She tells Sarah Whitebloom how she moved from dance to design and onto biomedical science, but being a 'woman in science' is not one of the identities she seeks.
When is a woman in science not a ‘woman in science’? When she is a woman in science.
At the risk of generalisation, women in science are hard-working, dedicated, cutting edge…scientists. Call them ‘women in science’ at your peril. Women in science will tell you quite firmly that they do not want to be treated differently or feel they do not deserve their place. Any hint of tokenism will be greeted with a frosty response.
Although science needs more women, it needs more people, a diverse range of people, with different perspectives and ideas.
And Professor Eleanor Stride is an uber scientist, which is nothing to do with mini-cabs but everything to do with dedication, hard-work and world-changing ideas. It is hard to imagine that she has ever felt she is making up the numbers.
‘You’d be surprised,’ she says. Sometimes, it is felt that there has to be a woman involved and no one wants to be that woman. Professor Stride maintains there is, of course, a need for more women in science and is infuriated at the idea that girls are still told that Maths and science is not for them. She is, quite literally, furious at the ‘Mummy wasn’t any good at Maths’, sort of parental advice. And, she says, the counter-balance needs to start early, at Primary School, when girls start to drift away from the sciences and Maths.
Professor Stride, herself, had not intended to go into science or engineering and certainly not Biomedical Engineering. She actually started her education in a ballet school and progressed through school without a thought of going into sciences. It is a life she has not quite ever left behind and even now Professor Stride is involved in dancing – as a teacher of swing dancing in Oxford.
You’d be surprised how many scientists are involved in dance. I think it’s something to do with being very technically focused and frankly a little bit obsessive.
Thanks to a series of chance events - and a lot of obsession - today, as well as a dance teacher, she is also the Professor of Biomaterials, with a joint position between Engineering Science and the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Science - and there is a real buzz around her work.
It is a few years off, but the work being done by her team may just revolutionise cancer treatment – using tiny bubbles and ultrasound to deliver targeted treatments inside the body. And the self-effacing Professor Stride has won so many prizes for this work, most recently the Blavatnik award (her ninth), she is almost embarrassed. While grateful for the recognition, she emphasises she is part of a team and muses on an idea in circulation that Nobel prizes will not continue in their present form, because science now is so collaborative that individual prizes do not make sense.
Thanks to her unconventional route, Eleanor Stride is something of a one-woman collaborative team. Unsure at 18 what she should do, young Eleanor was taking science ‘A’ levels, but also Art and Latin when she underwent a Pauline conversion to engineering. So impressed had she been by a chance visit to a design exhibition, organised by her Art teacher, she promptly decided her destiny lay in making things. She was inspired to take a degree in Mechanical Engineering at UCL and she intended to follow up with a Masters course in industrial design at the Royal College of Art.
As with all best-laid plans, though, it did not happen. In her final Undergraduate year, Eleanor became interested in the impact of ultrasound on bubbles – in oil pipes. From there, thanks to a meeting in the senior common room between her supervisor and a senior radiologist, she ended up abandoning her plan to be an industrial designer and did something completely different - a Biomedical PhD on the use of bubbles in ultrasound imaging.
‘Bubbles in pipes are like bubbles in the bloodstream,’ she says. If you could use those bubbles and ultrasound, to deliver cancer treatments to the place it is needed, rather than injecting the whole body with heavy-duty drugs, you could revolutionise the battle against tumours, even hard to reach ones.
Although it seems a long stretch, to go from wanting to work for Aston Martin to drug-delivering bubbles, Professor Stride insists it is an engineering delivery problem.
‘The bubbles are just like very tiny cars,’ she says. ‘And we are working on the delivery process.’
It was not quite that easy, of course. Professor Stride did have to play catch-up during her PhD years, taking classes in anatomy at the medical school and learning, for the first time, about biology.
‘It is more complex but the approach is not that far-fetched,’ she maintains.
As a Mechanical Engineer with the know-how of a Biomedical Engineer, Professor Stride’s background is attuned to solving the problem - along with a host of experts from other disciplines from Physicists to Biologists and Chemists. As a team, they bring together the broadest range of experience and expertise. And Professor Stride laughs as she admits there is some truth to the science hierarchy portrayed in the American TV series, The Big Bang Theory, where the engineer is the butt of jokes.
At the top are the pure Mathematicians. Some way down are Theoretical Physicists and some way below them are Astro-Physicists. Next come Electrical Engineers and then come Mechanical Engineers, then Biomedical Engineers!
So you went down the ranking when you transferred to Biomedical and took your PhD?
‘Yes,’ she says, with amusement. ‘But then come Civil Engineers and Architects … only joking.’
Professor Stride laughs at the stereotyping, especially as her father-in-law was an architect.
‘Engineers are looked down on because they are dealing with real world problems. They make things work and sometimes that means making compromises,’ she says wryly.
Having engineers on board has brought closer the possibility that work of Professor Stride and her team will result in real advances that could save lives. The irony is clearly not lost on her. But now, she admits, the really hard part begins. The team is very close to being in a position where they will be ready to begin clinical testing. This is her next big challenge, her next career shift.
Turning herself yet again into something else, the good Professor is currently becoming accustomed to giving presentations to groups of venture capitalists and people who might possibly donate money. Without this, all the positive lab results will come to nothing.
‘The cost is phenomenal,’ she says, describing the arduous and complex procedures that now have to be gone through before their work has a possibility of reaching patients and making a difference.
‘Some people have been very generous, but there is a lot more money to raise,’ she says.
It is a lot to ask, Professor Stride realises it is a risk for an investor, when there is only a one in ten chance that it will work. And there are vested interests in it not working, given the existing treatments that could be undermined by tiny bubbles.
But, says Professor Stride, for all the prizes, she will not feel as though she has succeeded until all this work has helped someone.
Hear Professor Eleanor Stride speak about the future of science
When: Thursday 5 March, 2020, 11am–6pm
Where: Banqueting House, Whitehall, London, UK
Event: Hosted by BBC News Science Correspondent Victoria Gill, this public series of short, interactive talks from early-career UK scientists, including Professor Eleanor Stride, will provide a forum for science enthusiasts to discover cutting-edge research that is shaping the world. Following the talks, a discussion will explore trends and insights influencing the future of science in the UK. Attendance is free and open to the public, but registration is required.
Register for free: www.nyas.org/YoungScientists2020
Dr Sarah Bauermeister is a senior data and science manager at Dementias Platform UK, an MRC-funded project based at Oxford University set up to accelerate research into the diagnosis and treatment of dementia. On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Dr Bauermeister talks to Science Blog about her route into research – including a 20-year career break to raise and home-educate her seven children.
Q: How did you get into science?
A: Before having children I completed a degree in sports science in South Africa and was intending to travel, but instead I quickly settled in the UK. Later, while home-schooling my children, I worked towards a further degree in psychology, then a master’s – both through the Open University. I specialised in cognitive neuropsychology, focusing on the neurological changes affecting cognition in older adults, and completed my PhD at Brunel University London focusing on lifestyle and fitness as moderators of cognitive decline. I then completed a postdoctoral position investigating cognitive predictors of falls and frailty at the University of Leeds.
Q: Tell us about your first job in science.
Given the competitive nature of the field and the precariousness of contracts early in scientific careers, women are hesitant to take career breaks to start a family.
A: After a 20-year period during which I studied while raising and home-educating my seven children, I became an early-career scientist in Leeds with people 20 years younger than me. I’d already had my family by that stage, but I found that many of the younger women around me felt they were in a difficult position in this respect.
Q: How can we encourage more women and girls into science?
A: There are some real barriers to women working in science. Although there is a lot of work being carried out to shift the balance, reports show that institutions, research groups and individual scientists still support men in their careers more than women. In too great a proportion of research groups you see the group leader is a man and the postdoctoral researchers are women. This is disheartening, because it shows that many talented women were not mentored or encouraged to stay in science, or given the right support either to return after raising a family or to combine working with raising a family. This type of support is crucial if we want to retain women in this field.
It is no longer up to women to push equality – it needs to come from the top, and then this would filter down so that the main income is no longer gender-specific. Only with this type of policy change will equality of care be feasible for families.
Q: What changes need to happen?
A: We need to start by changing the culture in schools, as well as in higher education. The intake of women into the physical sciences is 39%, whereas in computer science it is only 19%. We also need to change how we develop and talk about women’s scientific careers. Many women still feel that they need to choose between having children and succeeding in their career.
If there was more gender equality with regards to salary, there would be more shared parental care.
Q: What is your current area of research?
A: I’m a cognitive neuropsychologist managing scientific research across several multi-disciplinary projects, as well as being senior data manager for Dementias Platform UK (DPUK). Dementia is our most pressing public health crisis: around 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and the WHO projects that number to treble by 2050. We haven’t yet found a cure, and I’m as driven and excited as I’ve ever been about preventing or delaying the onset of this disease.
My interests include using statistical modelling techniques to make sense of data arising from psychometric tests, and to explore the presence of two or more conditions or states in an individual – such as cognitive change and poor mental health, or childhood adversity and adult low mood.
DPUK’s Data Portal is a repository of more than 40 cohorts – long-term health studies – comprising data on more than 3 million participants from among members of the public. This data is hugely valuable, and it’s available for analysis by researchers with the aim of finding new insights into the causes, early diagnosis and treatment of dementia.
I have only ever wanted to be a scientist, over any other career.
Q: What does being a scientist mean to you?
A: I’ve always been curious about the mechanisms of the brain and body, ever since buying and avidly studying a Reader’s Digest book called How the Body Works when I was nine. That passion has never left me, and I’ve never let anything distract me from that – even after a long break to have my children.
Now that I’m working for Dementias Platform UK, I feel driven to contribute towards the search for ways to predict dementia before it is clinically evident, driving forward the search for interventions and a cure.
Q: Based on your own experience, what would be your message to girls and young women considering a career in science?
A: Science doesn’t stand still, but taking time out to have a family doesn’t need to be perceived as ‘the end’: there are many ways to stay abreast of findings, utilise institutional facilities for childcare, arrange working from home, or share childcare with partners, friends and family. There are always ways to pursue a career in science, if you really want to.
By Guillermo Navalon
Darwin’s finches are among the most celebrated examples of adaptive radiation in the evolution of modern vertebrates and their study has been relevant since the journeys of the HMS Beagle in the eighteenth century which catalysed some of the first ideas about natural selection in the mind of a young Charles Darwin.
Despite many years of study which have led to a detailed understanding of the biology of these perching birds, including impressive decades-long studies in natural populations, there are still unanswered questions. Specifically, the factors explaining why this particular group of birds evolved to be much more diverse in species and shapes than other birds evolving alongside them in Galapagos and Cocos islands have remained largely unknown.
An international team of researchers from the UK and Spain tackled the question of why the rapid evolution in these birds from a different perspective. We showed in their study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution that one of the key factors related to the evolutionary success of Darwin’s finches and Hawaiian honeycreepers might lie in how their beaks and skulls evolved.
Previous studies have demonstrated a tight link between the shapes and sizes of the beak and the feeding habits in both groups, which suggests that adaptation by natural selection to the different feeding resources available at the islands may have been one of the main processes driving their explosive evolution. Furthermore, changes in beak size and shape have been observed in natural populations of Darwin’s finches as a response to variations in feeding resources, strengthening these views.
However, recent studies on other groups of birds, some of which stem from the previous recent research of the team, have suggested that this strong match between beak and cranial morphology and ecology might not be pervasive in all birds.
By taking a broad scale, numerical approach at more than 400 species of landbirds (the group that encompasses all perching birds and many other lineages such as parrots, kingfishers, hornbills, eagles, vultures, owls and many others) we found that the beaks of Darwin’s finches and Hawaiian honeycreepers evolved in a stronger association with the rest of the skull than in most of the other lineages of landbirds. In other words, in these groups the beak is less independent in evolutionary terms than in most other landbirds.
Many questions remain: for instance, are these evolutionary situations isolated phenomena in these two archipelagos or have those been more common in the evolution of island or continental bird communities? Do these patterns characterise other adaptive radiations in birds?
Future research will likely solve at least some of these mysteries, bringing us one step closer to understanding better the evolution of the wonderful diversity of shapes in birds.
Guillermo Navalón is lead author of the study and a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Oxford's Department of Earth Sciences, having recently graduated from a PhD at the University of Bristol.
The latest in our ScienceBlog series of 'amazing people at Oxford you should know about' is Dr Pavandeep Rai. A Post-doctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, her work focuses on the effect of something called 'mitochondria' on Parkinson's disease, using cutting edge gene-editing cool CRISPR-Cas. Here she guides us through her career and experiences of pushing the boundaries of science in both research and art...
To start with, can you give us a beginner’s guide to your research? What is ‘mitochondria drug discovery’?
I started my ‘love affair’ with mitochondria during my undergrad degree at Birmingham, particularly in my year in industry with AstraZeneca. Basically, mitochondria are organelles, small entities within our cells. Their main job is to make something called ATP, which is the energy our cells use. So, if something goes wrong or your mitochondria start to degrade, then that will reduce the amount of energy and your cells don’t work as well.
The lab I’m working in looks specifically at Parkinson’s disease. By looking at the mitochondria, we can try to find ways to improve their functionality. Can we stop them from degrading? Once they’ve started, can we stop them from getting worse?
Currently, I’m using genetic editing tool called CRISPR-Cas. It’s been in the news recently, you might have seen those stories about ‘designer babies’ and the like? But we use it as a research tool to see how removing genes from the genome affects mitochondria.
If we remove a gene and it improves function, then we could maybe use it as a treatment for Parkinson’s.
If removing a gene decreases function in healthy cells, then that tells us something else. Perhaps this is one of the ways that the disease itself progresses?
So, it ties into two aspects of research: one is treatment and the other is understanding.
How’s it been so far to use CRISPR-Cas and the general discourse around that?
It’s one of the most innovative areas at the moment. We’re seeing huge advances. Previously, we were only able to completely physically remove genes. Now, we can ‘silence’ genes by turning them off temporarily. This means we can do a kind of ‘before and after’; what happens when we turn the gene off? And what happens when we turn it back on again?
The technology is getting more specific and detailed all the time, too. I think it’s going to become a really huge therapeutic area in future.
For example, there are clinical trials being run into diseases like Sickle Cell. With diseases like that, where you have one specific gene that’s ‘switched wrongly’, you could eventually use it to just flip the switch the right way.
Meanwhile, for Parkinson’s, we’re using it more as a tool to look for helpful molecules for treatment.
Any thoughts on that wider discourse around gene editing?
In the research community, it is very much a tool for research and very specific treatments. That said, people will always use tools for things they aren’t designed for.
When I was at Newcastle, they were working on mitochondrial donation or ‘three parent baby’ research to treat mitochondria disease patients. It’s tightly regulated here. But in other places around the world, it’s being used to treat women with low fertility, or to treat other diseases.
Like any tool, you create it for the general good. Then you have to keep facing those ethical and moral issues in the future. I recently went to a conference in the US, which highlighted these issues. So that’s one way for the research community to ask important questions about guidelines and regulation.
To you, what’s the most exciting thing about the work you’re doing?
For me, it’s using CRISPR-Cas to really understand disease. There are still so many questions that need to be answered and these tools are advancing our understanding massively. Every other month there’s news about new genes and pathways.
And I think the work of the Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre (OPDC) is really important, especially because of its excellent collaboration with patients. We have a lot of cell lines available to us, and using these stem cells we can grow them to form neurons. Working on actual neuronal tissue makes a huge difference for modelling the complexity of the disease. Along with the new techniques of CRISPR, that puts the OPDC in a leading position world-wide.
What are the big benefits of patient involvement and contribution?
There’s a huge impact! One of the reasons a lot of companies like to work with research institutions in the UK is that our research is tied to institutions like the NHS. There’s a great referrals system to get patients together and get them organised. And the patients just really want to help us and to see progress in therapy development.
There’s fundraising too, not just for the big charities, but also from local patient groups. They have things like a pub quiz to help raise money so we can buy lab equipment.
They also donate stem cells, do clinical trials and make samples available to us, which helps with diagnosis. Their families offer support too! It’s an awful disease, but it’s a powerful community.
What are some things about working in research and science that surprised you or might surprise others?
The more you research something, the more questions arise. That surprises me.
I think there’s this perception of scientists as people who have all the answers, but actually we just have all the questions! It’s all about asking the right questions and finding out how to answer them, rather than finding the answers themselves.
You’ve worked in Newcastle, Birmingham, and now Oxford. What have been your favourite things about those places?
I’m originally from Kenya and when we first moved from there, we had family in Birmingham. So, I went to nursery in Birmingham and still have family there, so I’ve always had a soft spot for it. I’m a midlands girl at heart, and now I live in Leamington Spa (which is a much trendier place now than the small town I grew up in).
When I did my year in industry, I lived in Manchester. I loved the north! And I made great links with a community of scientists who were also on the placement programme with my at AstraZeneca.
Then I moved to Newcastle for my masters and PhD. It has a great quality of life; you’re near the coast, near 3 national parks, and you can walk everywhere. Plus great food and nightlife, so definitely a ‘work hard, play hard’ PhD. My PhD mentor was also very knowledgeable, he was a clinician neurologist, so he really drove home the patient focussed aspect of research.
Then I saw this post-doc in Oxford with Richard Wade-Martins. It was in the area of drug discovery, which is a great fit. Plus, it’s a great lab with amazing resources and research, and the people here push you to be at the forefront of new techniques. So, all of that drew me to Oxford. And then I arrived and thought ‘Oh, Oxford’s so nice!’
You mentioned your PhD mentor was a pretty big influence – were there any other people or events that inspired you and shaped your work?
My year in industry was also really formative, finding out what commercial research looks like. I also worked at the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland during my PhD, where my collaborator was keen to give me experience of all the different stuff going on there. Commercial science is very goal-oriented, so you get these huge institutions working together really well to get results to for compounds and allow products to be delivered to the market.
I’m beginning to explore the idea of business in my research too, like a start-up or spinout. Oxford is a great enterprising hub, with lots of support like Enterprising Oxford. I’m part of a cohort called RisingWISE, which helps 40 women from Oxford and Cambridge develop creative, innovative, enterprising skills. It’s also great for meeting women from industry, gaining mentorship and networking
I’ve recently also been accepted onto the Ideas 2 Impact programme at the Säid Business School. This initiative recruits Postdocs to join the Strategy and Innovation module of the MBA programme, giving Scientist and Executives the opportunity to work together on business ideas. I am really looking forward to starting this in January.
Any ideas sparked for a spinout already?
I’d love to have one, but not yet! At the moment for me, it’s about building that skillset and that mind-set to think about research in that commercial way. As a researcher we’re already analytical, and setting up research groups or labs is already a bit of an entrepreneurial prospect. But you also need to flex those creative muscles.
Are there any other difference between academia and industry, or things they can learn from each other, that it’s important to highlight?
I’ve always seemed to be part of collaborations between the two, which I think are becoming more and more normal. They have this really good balance between them. At the end of the day, industries are keen to make their bottom line, to find a compound or therapy that will cure a disease but also make a profit. Academia is more about the minutia, going back to basics and saying ‘okay, what does this protein do?’ rather than jumping to ‘what could it cure?’
And sometimes maybe academia gets a little stuck in its rut? It can be too focused and detailed-oriented, with researchers hidden away in our laboratories. And I think industry can sometimes be not detailed enough, as they’ve got deadlines and money and time constraints.
So these collaborations are a really good middle ground. They help researchers be part of something bigger and impact-focused, but gives industry the ability to really understand therapies. And this makes for better drugs!
Any other moments in your career you’re proud of and want to celebrate?
I think handing in my thesis for my PhD, probably! That was tough!
I have loads of small things I’m proud of – I’m proud of supervising students and seeing them flourish. I’ve supervised a lot of medics who’ve come in with no experience of holding a pipette, and by the end of things they were giving me ideas for their project and learning independently. So, I think training is a really important aspect of science as it can go both ways.
And being part of collaborations that have meaningful impacts on patients! Having a career with a cause is important to me.
Can I ask about experience of being a woman and minority in science? What would you like to see put into place to encourage people into STEM?
As a woman, it’s interesting! There’s lots of women in science, especially biology, but less in other STEM areas. Why do so many of us go into biology? I reckon that has something to do with how we’re raised.
I think it’s retention that really suffers, across all subjects. I’d like to see us asking questions like: where are people dropping off? When are they changing careers? What are the barriers making it difficult? Is it the temporary nature of academic contacts? Do we need to rethink how we deal with childcare and maternity leave?
Being a woman of colour (I hate that phrasing, by the way, but it’s how it’s said), you don’t have many role models; not a lot of professors look like you. There’s a community aspect too; where do you feel like you belong? I’ve been in several situations across various jobs where I’ve been the only woman and person of colour in the room. I never really thought to question it until recently.
I don’t think addressing that is a quota-filling task. I think it’s about going into communities and starting with the grassroots. Where are we employing people from? How do we expand to recruit from new communities, schools and universities across the country and world?
Also, I think unconscious bias has a huge part to play. In this country, it seems like some people think that when you don’t see overt racism, then it doesn’t exist. I think it’s more subtle and more nuanced, which makes it hard to challenge. We all have biases we don’t think about, so that kind of introspection is really important.
What is one really interesting thing that you’d like everyone to know?
I’d like people to know how close connections are related to healthy longevity.
Aside from exercise, good meaningful relationships are the best thing for long-term health. So go and make connections, volunteer, enjoy your hobbies and just make time to meet like-minded people. Friendship – it really is the key to a long and healthy life.
If you could work with any scientist, living or dead, who would you want to work with?
The scientist I would most loved to have met is Wangari Maathi. She was born in Kenya (as was I, so very close my heart) and after winning a scholarship to study biology in the US, she was the first woman in Central and East Africa to gain a doctorate. She recognized that deforestation was causing a decrease in biodiversity and food crops, affecting mainly women who are the resource gatherers in many African communities. She founded the Green Belt Movement which paid local women to plant trees. The Movement grew to encompass almost a million people and had major political ramifications in Kenya.
In 1990 she set up her own political party and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
I think Dr Maathi’s ability to apply her science to a grass roots problem and make rapid impact in improving the lives of people in her community is incredibly aspiring. I would love to be able to do similar work in the future, using my background in biological research to bring about positive changes in healthcare for individuals.
You’ve also done some really interesting outreach work in the past, right? Can you tell me about that?
Yes, I have a longstanding interest in getting scientists out of their labs and involved in other areas and in communities.
In Newcastle, we had a collaboration with a Fine Art course, creating installations that drew on all kinds of science themes. We then went on to work with the National Trust’s Women in STEM project, with award-winning artist Olivia Turner. We created these amazing 6-foot wooden sculptures that are now on display in the Cheeseburn Sculpture Park.
I’m very keen to re-establish that kind of project in Oxford, too! I’m meeting and liaising with various groups, so watch this space.
- 1 of 143
- next ›