An interview with Dr Clive McKimmie

June 2020

Clive McKimmie is a University Academic Fellow at the University of Leeds, UK and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview, he tells us more about his research on emerging viruses and infections and why understanding transmission is so important to microbiology.

Clive McKimmie
© Clive McKimmie

What is your role and area of research?

I lead a team investigating the fascinating interactions that occur between disease-causing viruses and the mammalian host. We have a particular interest in viruses that are spread by mosquitoes, which are also known as arboviruses. These viruses represent an important class of emerging infections that are an increasing threat to human and animal health.

We study how the body defends itself against infection at the mosquito–mammalian interface. This involves combining expertise in immunology, virology and vector biology, to study the events that occur when mosquitoes spit out pathogens into your skin.

We have shown recently that immune responses from mosquito bites can have a defining impact on the severity of arbovirus infection. But not all immune responses are helpful! We found that some inflammatory responses to the mosquito bite actually help the virus to replicate and cause disease. In contrast, if you therapeutically activate distinct anti-viral immune pathways at the bite, you can protect against infection. It will be important to work out what is happening in more detail, so that we can design new medicines and vaccines.

Why is your research important?

Arboviruses, such as those that cause Zika, dengue and chikungunya are infecting more people and spreading to new countries as the climate warms and globalisation helps disease-causing species of mosquitoes to spread. There are no medicines available to help those infected, and vaccines are only available for a few of these infections. A big problem is that it is hard to predict when and where an outbreak might occur, or which virus will be responsible. There are almost 90 arboviruses that are known to cause disease; knowing which one to prepare for is difficult. Our research focuses on the responses of the host to infection at the mosquito bite; some of which are a common aspect of many of these infections. The hope is that targeting one of these common aspects will be widely applicable for several arbovirus diseases.

Tell us about your biggest achievement so far.

The most rewarding aspect of the job is when your students do well. Most recently, our first PhD student, Steven, published his work in a major journal (Science Translational Medicine) that also received considerable media attention. While Daniella; another of our PhD students, made the final of Microbiologist of the Year in 2019. Seeing your students ace their goals is just the best!

What are the challenges you face in your work and how do you try to overcome them?

Science can sometimes be a frustrating experience day-to-day. Experiments often don’t work, then they don’t work again! Motivating your team and maintaining progress is a key challenge. However, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work; success is possible. Nothing beats that feeling when a team member discovers something new for the first time.

As a group leader, you have to develop a whole new skill set – and quickly! This includes having good interpersonal skills and a rudimentary knowledge of diverse admin processes, e.g. human resources, finance, health and safety, home office rules (e.g. for animal experiments). All the while, we have to simultaneously teach and write internationally competitive grant applications. Learning how to celebrate success when it happens and enjoying the journey is key to surviving what can be a tough learning curve as a new PI.

Why is it important to be a member of an organisation like the Microbiology Society?

There is little point to science if we don’t tell people about our discoveries. The Microbiology Society provides an ideal platform to disseminate our findings, gain novel perspectives, make new friends and form collaborative partnerships.

In addition to its Annual Conference, the Microbiology Society has a whole range of initiatives to support scientists. For example, they have prioritised supporting new investigators through the creation of RIVR (recently independent virology researchers). This is a network of new PIs who meet up to share experiences, stories and advice. It’s been really helpful.

Why does microbiology matter?

One of the most powerful forces that has driven our evolution as a species, is that which is imposed by microbes. They constantly surround us and permeate our every environment. Considering the diverse and numerous nature of microbes, it is sometimes a wonder we are not always succumbing to infection. The reason for our health, is that our bodies have a truly astounding system of immune defences that are as equally complex as the microbes that seek to infect us. Studying this relationship is not only fascinating for us as scientists but is also key for discovering new medicines that can help prevent and cure infectious disease.  

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].