Careers Focus: careers in SARS-CoV-2

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12 / 10 / 2021

During recent times, the importance of microbiologists in society and the impact of their contributions to the overall health of the wider community have become clearer than ever. As we have begun to move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, we interviewed our members to see how they have been involved, demonstrating the diversity of microbiology-related careers.

Lindsay Broadbent, from Queen’s University Belfast, is a Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF) Fellow researching respiratory viruses. As well as working on SARS-CoV-2, looking at virus–host interactions and drug repurposing, Lindsay works to educate the public through outreach and media engagement.

What was your role during the pandemic?

Outside of the day job, I have been doing a lot of outreach and media about COVID-19. My first media appearance was in February 2020 and I have now taken part in over 1000 media appearances (or syndications).

How did your career path lead you to this role?

I have been involved with science outreach throughout my career. Before 2020, that mostly involved science festivals and school events, but now I do much more general science communication (although events with kids are still my favourite – they ask the best questions!). I turned down a lot of the media requests that I received at the start of 2020. I was worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously because I am not a professor, but it was actually a journalist that told me that was a good thing – they wanted a variety of voices discussing the pandemic.

Can you describe a typical day/activity related to this role?

First, coffee! Then I have my day job as a scientist to think about: planning and carrying out experiments, writing papers, helping students, teaching, meetings. Throughout the day I get phone calls or emails from media producers asking for my availability. Our Communications Department at Queen’s is fantastic – if things get too much, they help manage the requests I receive.

I reply to the producers to figure out what their story is. If it is something I am unable to comment on I will suggest a colleague with the right expertise. I’ll then set aside half an hour to make sure I am up to date on the current facts and figures, and any other relevant infomation that could be useful. I usually spend two minutes before the interview walking around my office to get rid of the nervous energy!

What do you most enjoy about this role?

On a more personal note, I have received some very kind letters and emails from people thanking me for my contribution to science communication. Including someone that told me her daughter now wants to be a virologist!

What is one of the most challenging aspects of your engagement activities?

Without a doubt, social media has been one of the hardest aspects of science communication over the past year and a half. Social media can be such a useful tool to communicate with a lot of people, but the more you engage with people the more you will experience the downsides of sites such as Facebook or Twitter. There have been times I have had to take a break from Twitter for my own mental health. I am learning to deal with it much better; a combination of blocking abusive accounts and laughing at some of the ridiculousness!

 

At the start of the pandemic, Andrew Bosworth, now a Senior Clinical Scientist at University Hospitals Birmingham, was undertaking training in microbiology as a pre-registration clinical scientist. Andrew later moved into clinical virology to assist with providing routine clinical services whilst continuing his research into dangerous viruses.

What was your role during the pandemic?

I was temporarily state registered while still in training, and suddenly found myself as the first point of call for hundreds of doctors arranging testing for their patients at a time where lack of information became a real problem in the health service. We were all learning on the fly. I worked with the University of Birmingham, supporting research and development (R&D) activities to develop new diagnostics for COVID-19 and to develop surge capacity across Birmingham. Later in the pandemic I completed my training, becoming one of the few virologists at my NHS trust in Birmingham, helping to set up rapid testing laboratories in emergency departments, and developing new services for COVID testing. My work during the pandemic on new test development led to being approached by Test and Trace to join the national Technologies Validation Group, providing input and support to the validation and roll-out of new tests of every shape and form.

How did your career path lead you to this role?

My first job was as an Anthrax Research Scientist at Porton Down, working for the then Health Protection Agency. I then joined the Rare and Imported Pathogens Laboratory, helping to diagnose dengue virus infections, chikungunya, scrub typhus and of course highly dangerous viral haemorrhagic fevers (VHF), such as Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever and Ebola virus. I had the opportunity to be deployed alongside many colleagues to West Africa, working for Public Health England (PHE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to diagnose patients in the field for the Ebola virus. I completed a PhD focusing on the biology of the Ebola virus before moving into Clinical Scientist training. Since working in the NHS, I have continued to be involved in research into dangerous viruses.

What do you most enjoy about your role?

I enjoy how varied my role is. It is a mixture of developmental, educational and clinical responsibilities, with room to explore my own scientific interests. I also enjoy seeing patients’ health improve because of the clinical advice given, and seeing patients receive the care they need because of the testing our laboratory performs. A safe and effective NHS service relies on the work of thousands of scientists and technicians.

What is the most challenging aspect of your role?

A key aspect of the role is being required to make some quite important decisions with sometimes unclear, unavailable or incomplete information. This can have significant impact on patients and it can be stressful under pressure.

The pandemic has mobilised microbiologists and demonstrated the need for their expertise and knowledge throughout the journey to pandemic recovery. We must emphasise the importance of microbiologists in society more to inspire the next generation of scientists.

For more interviews with those working in the field of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, visit our SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 hub.