University College Dublin (2011-2013), Dublin City University (2004-2005), University College Dublin (2000-2004)
MSc (by research) in Molecular Biology (UCD), MSc (taught) Bioinformatics (DCU), BSc Zoology (UCD)
Clinical Data Manager Quintiles Ltd
PhD student and Graduate Teaching assistant
University of Kent
I study viruses that are carried by bats and try to figure out what makes some dangerous to people, I hope this will let me predict potential new disease outbreaks and maybe lead to cures for existing diseases.
Diseases that can be passed from animals to humans are called zoonotic diseases and disease of this type is often the most difficult to contain and treat. Diseases such as the viruses SARS, MERS, Rabies, Ebola and Marburg are all passed from animals to humans and there are many many more.
As human populations expand into areas we have never lived before we have more and more contact with animals and so there is more risk that disease will spread from animals to people. In recent years there have been several serious outbreaks of dangerous viruses that we now know most likely originated in bats. Among these diseases have been SARS, MERS, Nipah virus and Hendra virus and these outbreaks have shown us that we have very little information on how common these viruses are in bats and how often they can spread from bats to humans.
My work is focused on these diseases that spread from bats to humans, to investigate this I study how the viruses interact it with cells to try to determine what it is that allows these viruses to “jump” from bats to humans. In addition I work with other groups to gather samples from wild bat populations to investigate the types of viruses that are common in bats and how easy it is for these diseases to pass from bat to bat and bats to other animals. I hope that this information will allow us to predict and ideally avoid future outbreaks of viruses.
My Typical Day:
I bet everyone says that each day is different, but it really is true when you’re doing research the only job I do every day is inspect the cells I grow on petri dishes, viruses need cells to reproduce so if something goes wrong with my cells I need to know and fix it fast.
I normally start the day by examining each of my cell cultures under the microscope, these are grown in petri dishes in incubators and it is important that I have healthy cells ready when I need to do an experiment. After this it depends on what I have to do that day sometimes I will work on my computer mostly looking at the genes of a virus and comparing it to other related viruses, this is a key way to pick out the potential parts of a virus that make it dangerous to humans.
Other days I will take what I have learned from the computer work and try to experiment in the lab to see if i have identified parts of a virus that could be useful to create new drugs. It is for this stage that I need cells as I need to see how a virus affects healthy cells, for this reason I often have lots of cells from a number of different sources some are human some are from other animals. I use viruses that have been altered so they cannot reproduce (make more virus) this means that they are much safer, I also insert a new gene into them so that when they infect a cell they make it glow green!
What I'd do with the prize money:
I would like to work together with bat workers across the UK to organise education days for schools to highlight both the importance of the bats that are around us all the time but also the potential dangers of handling or interacting with bats.
There are a large number of bat groups in the UK with people volunteering significant amounts time and energy these groups often run workshops and education days, these activities provide a brilliant jumping off point for discussions on disease transmission and how to avoid it. Travel expenses would be a great help.
I would also like to arrange brief lab classes with interested school children where they would get to see day to day activities of a working lab and have the processes explained and put in context, a portion of the money would therefore go towards materials used in these demonstrations.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Determined, enthusiastic, curious
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes but not too often.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Probably a Vet
Who is your favourite singer or band?
The White Stripes
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Its a tie between surfing and climbing Kilimanjaro.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I’d like to be able to speak any language, freeze time (as long as i could still do everything normally), be able to heal anything (disease or injury) with a single touch
Tell us a joke.
What do you call a fish with no eyes? FSH