How did you get to where you are today and what first attracted you to a career in science?
I first did biology at Pembroke College, Oxford and loved it. I remember going to a lecture about a parasite called Toxoplasma that totally reverses a rat’s natural fear of cats, ultimately making them attracted to the cats so that they are more easily caught and eaten. The parasite can then complete its life cycle (the fatal feline attraction!). I just remember thinking wow, that’s so cool. The same parasite has since been linked to schizophrenia and an increased risk of car crashes in people.
After University, I did some research on the effects of schizophrenia drugs on these parasites. Since, I’ve worked on a several diseases mainly affecting some of the world’s most poverty-stricken areas. During my PhD I worked on bilharzia in Uganda, a devastating infection that reduces physical and cognitive development in children and can kill later in life. After 4 years researching a disease called onchocerciasis (river blindness) in Ghana, I returned to Uganda on a competitively funded fellowship, then my current European funding, and my lectureship in Glasgow.
You specialise in neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) – can you tell us a bit more about the work you do?
Everyone has heard of malaria, HIV and TB, yet neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) cause the same amount of illness worldwide but are often unknown. The difference is that for most of the NTDs, it’s all about how heavily infected you are. You must be repeatedly exposed to be ill and therefore lots of travellers just aren’t endangered by them; they are diseases of poverty often linked to a lack of clean water, sanitation and hygiene.
When I applied for a PhD at Imperial College London, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had just donated $30 million to help control an NTD called bilharzia through mass drug administration. I instantly wanted to work alongside the project, looking at the effect of these treatments and potential drug resistance. I had done my undergraduate project in this disease and was shocked by how many people had it, but how few people knew about it. It was such an exciting new area, which the millennium development goals had really brought to the forefront of the global health community. I just wanted to be involved and help where I could.
“I’ve got to where I am today through hard work, being open to researching new ideas, and most importantly, loving what I do.”
Why should more girls choose science?
Science has so many exciting angles that I find it disappointing that a lot of the younger generation, not just girls, are put off in schools. I think the current school curriculum focuses too heavily on the historical side of science, whereas a career in science is all about learning new things and pushing the boundaries of our knowledge.
Most importantly, as you progress through a career in science, you get to write your own job description by applying for funding to work on whatever you find the most interesting; surely that alone should appeal to boys and girls alike.
I’ll do all that I can to help inspire and support the next generation of scientists, I certainly don’t know anyone who has ever regretted choosing science, and that includes all the girls. So hopefully I can continue to encourage them over the years (and if anyone has children who want to do work experience, then they should get in touch!)
What is it that makes you get out of bed each morning and drives you to do what you do?
I’m terrible at getting up in the morning! But I certainly love going to work each day once I’m up! I’m mostly driven by helping others, whilst being fascinated by what I do on a daily basis. I love the fact that every day is different and that I’m never bored. I love seeing a project through, right from the infected children in Uganda to helping inform global policy at the World Health Organisation.
What has been your greatest achievement to date?
A couple of years ago I was shortlisted for a Women of the Future award, which even though I didn’t win, was an amazing experience. It was wonderful to have been nominated and go to the award ceremony with some of the most inspirational women I’ve ever met.
My greatest career achievement however, has definitely been winning my European Research Council Starting Grant, which then secured my permanent position at the University of Glasgow, enabling me to start building my research team. We can now begin to answer some really important questions to help reduce bilharzia infections and improve global health by using rigorous science to build a foundation for intervention trials and national level control strategies.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was from an ex-boyfriend actually. It hasn’t all been plain sailing and at one stage I nearly left academia as I was really unhappy. But he said, ‘It is your current job you don’t like, not your career, don’t confuse the two’, and he was spot on. I didn’t realise I could be as happy at work as I am in Glasgow, doing great science with wonderful people. I am so glad I stuck it out. Unfortunately, him and I weren’t quite so successful!
“Moving forward, I want to inspire the next generation of scientists in the UK and developing countries, supporting capacity building, and improving the health of some of the world’s poorest.”
Have you travelled to any eye-opening destinations with your job?
Absolutely! I am actually writing this from Uganda, and, excluding conferences, I have been lucky enough to also work in Mexico, Ghana, the Philippines, Thailand and Brazil; all fantastic in their own way. Uganda was where I spent most of my time during my PhD from 2004 to 2006, and then I came back in 2013, 2014 and now. It really is my second home. I have the most amazing, talented, hard-working and driven team from the Ministry of Health, and in the affected communities we work with some of the most generous people I have ever met. All over the world I am humbled and reminded that it is often the people with the littlest who are the most generous, and it is an honour to work with them.
In terms of your career, who has inspired you the most? Do you have a mentor?
The Professor who gave the lecture on Toxoplasma actually moved to Imperial and became my PhD supervisor. She was a fantastic mentor to me in the early years. She really inspired me so it’s great to continue to work with her now, as a colleague, as I start my own group and now have my own PhD students, as well as co-supervising students with her. I feel most inspired however, by the people I work with within endemic countries. The children and adults who have the infections we study, and the local team of technicians and researchers. It is these people who make all the hard work really worthwhile.
How do you like to unwind outside of work?
A big pull for my move to Glasgow was the fantastic department and research happening there. But I have to be honest; the proximity of the mountains and the amazing live music culture were also heavily involved! I love walking and being outdoors, so Scotland is perfect for me. Combining the outdoors with live music is an added bonus, so dancing in a field in wellies at a festival is probably what makes me the happiest, especially if I’m surrounded by great friends. I also do an annual walking holiday, on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which is definitely my favourite week of the year. I’m still finding my feet in Glasgow and haven’t found a Qigong place close to where I live yet, which I loved in Brixton, but I do Pilates in a glass house in the botanic gardens on Saturday mornings, which is a fantastic environment to unwind (and warm up in Glasgow!).
Do you have any go-to styles for your 9-5 wardrobe? Does fashion have a place at your workplace?
My job is so varied. It entails collecting samples from people in rural Africa, laboratory analysis, office work, through to meetings at the World Health Organisation (WHO) – so I don’t have a standard wardrobe! My head torch is the only compulsory item in Uganda! But I do try to be smart for the schools there, despite the heat and dust. Elsewhere, fashion does have a place at the WHO, and I often wear my first Fold dress (Camelot Winter White Tweed) when I’m there. And I am not the only one… There is always a nod of Fold appreciation across a meeting room as you can spot the styles a mile off!
I love everything from The Fold, but the Harley Dress in Fern and Grey Jacquard is so comfortable, warm, flattering and smart (great for winter meetings in Geneva at WHO); a very rare combination which The Fold always manages so well. The Fitzroy Top in Fossil Grey is so versatile and the colour goes with everything, which makes it perfect for work trips with hand luggage only.