Meet 2023 Sir Howard Dalton Young Microbiologist of the Year finalist: Hannah Brown

Posted on September 20, 2023   by Microbiology Society

The Sir Howard Dalton Young Microbiologist of the Year Prize is awarded by the Society each year. The prize recognises and rewards excellence in science communication by a Microbiology Society member who is a postgraduate student or postdoctoral researcher, having gained their PhD in the last two years. In the lead up to the final, taking place on 3 October 2023, we will be getting to know each of the finalists in this blog series.

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Hannah Brown (University College Dublin, Ireland)

What are your current research interests?

Overall, I have always considered myself a One Health scientist, as I do believe that an inclusive and rounded approach to investigating infectious disease is necessary. As a virologist, I am interested in looking at the virus-host interactions of viruses that have multiple host species, primarily focussing on zoonotic viruses. More specifically, I would like to focus on the mechanisms that result in severe pathogenesis and disease in one species but not another.

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As well as zoonotic viruses I am also interested in viral diseases of livestock, which stems from my love of animals, and a wish to contribute to the improvement of health and welfare of animals in different livestock systems. This also encompasses an interest in food biosecurity on a global scale, especially in low- and middle-income countries where livestock diseases can have a huge impact on food availability.

What is the theme of your talk?

My talk summarises a part of my PhD work, which focuses on building a robust and reliable cell culture model for hepatitis E virus (HEV), an emerging zoonotic infectious disease. The propagation of HEV is extremely challenging in currently utilised cell models, and this is thought to be due to a lack of polarity in in vitro systems.

To that end, the first part of my talk covers work where I took hepatoma cell lines that are commonly used across many research fields, and determined their ability to polarise. Subsequently, I then assessed what impact polarity has on the lifecycle of HEV and our ability to successfully propagate the virus.

How would you explain your research to a GCSE student?

After the COVID19 pandemic, everyone can appreciate the huge impact that viruses can have on both an individual and global scale. It is really important that we carry out research on these viruses, hopefully before they become a significant concern, to come up with interventions such as vaccines or potential treatments.

To be able to properly study them we need to be able to grow them, so that we can see exactly what they do to a host and how they cause disease. However, to grow them we need a model that closely represents the viruses usual lifecycle. Viruses are considered parasites, in that they need our cells or the cells of their host to be able to replicate.

The virus that I currently work on is hepatitis E virus, which infects the cells of the liver and can cause severe liver disease in some individuals. It is known as a zoonotic virus because the

virus is transmitted to humans from an animal host. Hepatitis E virus also infects pigs, and humans become infected when they eat undercooked pork products from an animal that had a hepatitis E infection.

Hepatitis E virus is very difficult to grow and so because of this not much is known about the viruses lifecycle and there are currently no vaccines and no effective treatments.

For my work, I am using liver cells in the lab and trying to make them grow and act as much like real liver cells as possible, so that HEV recognises them as such and carries out its full normal lifecycle which we can then investigate. The cells that make up the liver are quite complex compared to other cells, they are known as multipolar, because each individual cell has many different faces that carry out different jobs at any given time. The cells also grow together in the liver as a 3D arrangement with shared faces. This is what I am trying to mimic with my cell culture work, with the hope that if the cells become multipolar as real liver cells are, HEV will be better able to infect them and we can study the full virus lifecycle.

If you weren’t a microbiologist, what would you be?

I always wanted to work with animals and for two years I worked as a zoo keeper at a wildlife park in my home town. Whilst my heart was always in microbiology I really loved being a keeper, working so closely with so many interesting species, providing their care and enrichment. I also loved engaging with the public who visited the park, giving talks on the different animals I worked with and helping to educate people on conservation issues. Whilst at the park I had considered going into veterinary medicine and specialising in exotic species and so I imagine if I didn’t become a virologist then that is what I would have pursued.

Why is it important for you to be a member of the Microbiology Society?

As an early career scientist my membership of the Microbiology Society enriches my career in so many ways and provides many opportunities. For example, the society’s annual conference is an amazing networking opportunity, I often run into former colleagues and have made some new connections with other members of the community. Having a place to share and communicate my work to other microbiologists helps to give me perspective of where my work fits within scope of my field as well as being a place I can hone my communication skills. Attending the annual conference also means I am able to keep up to date with the breadth subjects encompassed within microbiology, some areas of which I might not always have the opportunity to explore.

The society also provides opportunities for members through grants and prizes, which are funded through many channels including membership fees, which makes me feel like in being a member I am contributing to microbiology in more than just the work that I do.