Member Q&A: Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly
© Daniel Kelly

What is your current job title?

I’m currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

What organisation do you work for?

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

What tasks are you involved in on a day-to-day basis?

I have trained as a lab researcher and I am interested in human noroviruses mainly. In fact, my PhD was, and my current postdoctoral project is, based around human noroviruses. The project I am currently involved in is a Wellcome Trust-funded collaboration, and it involves researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Public Health England, University College London, the University of Liverpool and the University of North Carolina. The aim of the project is to sequence human norovirus strains which have circulated over the past 20 years, which would inform on vaccine design, and to evaluate how quickly pandemic strains have spread in the population by measuring serum antibodies.

Synthetic human norovirus is used to measure an individual’s exposure history to different variants.

What qualifications did you need to pursue a career in your field?

I started out doing a Microbiology (BSc) undergraduate degree at the University of Liverpool in the year 2010 and then began my doctorate in 2013. I gained entry onto the Microbiology (BSc) course by undertaking A levels in philosophy and ethics, biology and chemistry. From that point I was able to get a PhD position to research human norovirus, also in the University of Liverpool, but it was in the Institute of Infection and Global Health and not the Institute of Integrative Biology where I was based for my undergraduate degree. Upon completion of my PhD, I moved to London to work on the project I am involved in currently.

My curiosity in science began when I received the MenC vaccine in 1999, because as a child you were always given vaccines and you understood the concept of it and so I wanted to get involved in that. I became interested in biomedical science, although I didn’t just want to perform clinical diagnostic assays, I wanted to understand the why behind the assay and then design them myself. I like the idea of doing research to create medical interventions within a healthcare environment that can make clinical applications better. I was always interested in pathogens and so in my Microbiology (Bsc), I was working on Staphylococcus aureus, which at that time was seen as a big problem with regards to antibiotic resistance. And then fortunately I got onto a PhD programme researching human noroviruses and since then I’ve gained such an interest in it that I can happily see myself working on it for the rest of my life.

Have there been any discoveries in microbiology that inspired you?

When I started my PhD in human norovirus there wasn’t a reproducible tissue culture model and that was a major problem for the field. Human norovirus is transmitted in humans through the faecal-oral route, so I suppose it is not ideal, but for us to isolate the virus you need stool samples to process in the lab from patients who are shedding the virus, and these stool samples are exhaustible and very precious to our research. Now, within the past 5 years there’s been the development of a reproducible tissue culture model and so researchers are now actually replicating this virus, something that they could not do 10 years ago. It is a tissue culture model which delivers varying levels of replication between different human norovirus strains, and so needs some optimisation, but researchers are starting to make steps towards this. I’d say that’s probably the biggest recent discovery, which is using enteroids that are developed from intestinal stem cells.

What skills do you think are important to do your job?

First and foremost, for me, it’s always been about hard work. If you have the drive and motivation, then that is half the battle done. Other skills would be that you need to plan your time well; for example, in a single day I might be doing 2 or 3 experiments and like with most things and most experiments you have an incubation period; therefore, you need to see where the gaps are in your free time. It’s also about efficiency of time and maintaining your focus over those periods when you’re testing samples to make sure that everything is where it should be – I’d say those are some of the major skills.

Tell us about some of your professional challenges and how you managed to overcome them?

Yes, I am very motivated to do the science – I really do enjoy it. However, I wouldn’t say I’m a very outgoing person, so a big struggle for me has always been doing presentations but I believe that is something that you get better at with practice. It’s really just the nervousness of standing in front of a lot of people and telling them about your work. When I was doing my PhD, the society provided me with a travel grant to go to an international conference in America to present my work to other people in my field and it was nice to get some practice. That is something I am constantly working on because with exposure you get better and even though you don’t want to do it at first, once you’ve done it you feel much more confident with delivering presentations. 

What do you like most/least about your work?

I am somewhat disheartened when experiments go wrong and maybe you’ve spent weeks and weeks on it and you can’t figure out what the reason is after you’ve exhausted all options. The thing I like most is when you generate a finding that nobody has ever seen before and you have put the work in. I feel like that is one of the best feelings in the world!

Have there been any advances in your field that you are looking forward to seeing?

Novel human norovirus strains usually emerge every 2-3 years and immunological pressure upon the virus is likely to play a role. So a strain will circulate and infect most of the population, but then would need to change itself antigenically, to evade recognition by the host immune system, and ultimately begin a new cycle of circulation in the population. In 2012 there was a strain emergence event and since then we observed the emergence of a novel strain in Hong Kong in 2019 but surveillance has been limited due to the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Once surveillance systems resume at normal capacity, I would be interested to see what new strains emerge and what competitive advantage the Hong Kong strain has, or what other emergent strains will look like in the future. My interest is how the virus changes over time and why it changes. The enteroid system is really useful for this because we can more easily measure why changes to the virus are beneficial to its transmission.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you started your career?

I would like to have known that when you go to conferences you should try to interact with people. When you’re new to the research field and doing a PhD, it is easy to be intimidated but from my experience everyone is really friendly, and they are working towards the same goals. This is also true when buying reagents for research, I never used to speak to sales representatives but when you speak to them, you can definitely get some good technical advice and sometimes discounted products for your research.

If you did not pursue a career in clinical microbiology research, what would you see yourself doing instead?

I didn’t exactly seek out a research focus in human noroviruses but now that I am doing it I can’t see myself doing anything else. I’ve always considered other areas of interest, for example I think it would have been really interesting to be involved in aiding interventions into the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. But any research on Ebola requires a higher containment level of lab work and it just put me off.

I suppose if there was something I would be interested in, with respect to research, it is prions which are the cause of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Prions are odd because they are misfolded proteins and unlike other infectious agents do not have a genome, and that is what makes them interesting. This is strange if you consider the flow of information within the central dogma of molecular biology. There was an outbreak of BSE 30 years ago, but none have occurred since then.