Communicating scientific research effectively is more critical than ever. Ka Man Parkinson from the EURAXESS UK team spoke to autophagy PhD researcher Alex Cloherty to hear more about her SARS-CoV-2 research, as well as her own science communication tips.
You’re originally from Canada and are now based in the Netherlands. As an international researcher, how did you find and secure funding to undertake your research overseas?
To do my research in the Netherlands, I was lucky enough to receive an Amsterdam Medical Center PhD scholarship.
During my Master's programme at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, I completed a short internship with my current supervisor, Dr Carla Ribeiro, at the Amsterdam UMC, and by the end of the internship we had generated some interesting preliminary data that I dearly wanted to follow up on.
We had found some new clues into the role of autophagy, the recycling system of the cell, during HIV-1 and Dengue virus infections. Some of that research is actually now published here.
With Carla’s support, I wrote an application for four years of funding to complete my doctoral research in her lab, and I was ecstatic to receive that funding in mid-2018.
I was actually Carla’s very first PhD student, and it’s been a fantastic experience to see first-hand the establishment of a successful research group made up of brilliant scientists.
Describe a typical day at work for you
The best part about my PhD is that there is no typical day! Depending on what phase of a given project that I’m in, and what experiments I have running in the lab at the time, the tasks and tempo of my day will change completely.
One day might be a full, long haul spent completely in the lab finalising a complex experiment, with only mini breaks for food and water.
On those days I’m in a lab coat all day, working carefully with human cells, human tissue models, and viruses like HIV-1, SARS-CoV-2, and Dengue virus.
On another day, I might spend the whole day at home, reading, writing, and analysing data behind my laptop - with a coffee in hand, of course.
Days like that are important to have every once in a while, to organise my ideas, catch up on what other researchers in my field have been up to, and plan out the next phase of a project.
"My favourite type of day is those days when I get to attend a conference to share my work and learn from scientific colleagues across the globe. I love discussing data and ideas with other scientists – that’s the most exciting part of the job for me!"
I should add that some days are a mix of all of these things. There’s never a dull moment at work for me!
At the global science communication competition, FameLab International, you used your love of film and TV to craft interesting analogies from the movie Alien and the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit to explain SARS-CoV-2 infection and immunity. How did you come up with these ideas and use these to develop your talks?
I’m always on the lookout for helpful analogies to explain science, and I use them all the time on my blog, Microbial Mondays.
For the Alien analogy, I actually watched the movie just before I needed to explain the replication cycle of Dengue virus at a lab meeting.
While watching the film, I had the idea to use an image of the gut-erupter/chest-burster alien emerging from Officer Kane in my PowerPoint to make the 'bursting' action of Dengue virus memorable.
As for the chess analogy, I was totally hooked on the suspense and story around chess while watching The Queen’s Gambit. It struck me how it’s an ancient game of combat – kind of like that between the immune system and infectious agents!
I try to use analogies that are personal or at least accessible for everybody, and since many people have at least seen a game of chess on Netflix, if not played it themselves, it seemed a perfect way to help people visualise complex biology.
Video courtesy of Cheltenham Festivals
At FameLab, you said that the ultimate goal of your research is to find new and more accessible ways to treat the viruses we study. Could you briefly explain what this might involve?
At the Autophagy-directed Immunity group, one of our focuses is on so-called ‘host-directed’ therapies.
Basically, if ‘direct-acting antivirals’, like Tamiflu for instance, can be considered sharp-shooters that directly destroy an invading virus, host-directed therapies can be considered booby traps in your cells that can boost your immune system’s defensive actions.
A big bonus of using host-directed therapies is that they typically don’t become less effective as a virus mutates, and are often effective across whole families of viruses rather than one specific variant - meaning that these therapies have a lot of potential in the field of rapidly emerging infectious diseases - like SARS-CoV-2 and its new variants of concern like Omicron.
Then, to make the drugs that we find more accessible, we often make big screens of drugs (in human tissues like skin and gut, like I spoke about in the FameLab Final) that have already been used for other conditions – like cancer, transplantation, or epilepsy – to see if we can repurpose them as antivirals, which will hopefully reduce the cost of getting them out in the world to treat people.
The pandemic obviously brought a new dimension to your work as you adapted your research to SARS-CoV-2. In what other ways has the pandemic impacted what you do?
Aside from starting a new research line that focuses on SARS-CoV-2, I think the COVID-19 pandemic impacted scientists in much the same way as everybody else.
It’s been a shame not to have lunches and coffee breaks together with colleagues, or go to physical conferences, for instance. It’s definitely been isolating at times, and there have been a lot of challenges as we adjusted to this new way of working and living.
To take a more positive view, I would say that living through the pandemic has honed my skills in efficient and independent working.
In order to ensure that we never exceeded maximum occupancies in the labs in which we work, which were put in place to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, we’ve had to schedule every last minute of our time so that colleagues can see when it is safe for them to enter.
I was always a scheduler and a planner, but this really honed my ability to use my time at work as efficiently as possible. Because of the rules around laboratory occupancy, it has also been much more difficult to ask last-minute questions, for example when I’m performing a new type of experiment for the first time.
Being somewhat forced to approach new and complicated protocols more on my own has increased my confidence in my own skills.
You clearly love and value science communication! What tips do you have for other early career researchers who would like to share their work with the public?
Firstly, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Initially, I was nervous about sharing any of my work on the internet. I was often afraid that I wasn't yet expert enough to share what I knew, or I was so nervous to leave a typo in my written work that I would never make my own self-imposed publishing deadlines. But you have to start somewhere!
And secondly, as science communicator extraordinaire Alan Alda says, have empathy for your audience. Really try to put yourself in their shoes, and to engage directly with your audience to learn what they are most interested in, and how best to relate your information to them.
Alex Cloherty is an autophagy doctoral researcher in the Department of Experimental Immunology at Amsterdam UMC in the Netherlands. She was recently crowned winner at FameLab International 2021, a science communication competition owned by Cheltenham Festivals and delivered globally by the British Council until 2021. Follow Alex on her blog Microbial Mondays and on Twitter at @alexgoesviral