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Stopping the superbugs

From mathematics at the University of Oxford to researching a major global health threat in Edinburgh; alumna and Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Melissa Ward talks us through the journey.

Dr Melissa Ward

Antibiotics have been one of the greatest breakthroughs in medicine but the spread of antibiotic resistance is now one of the biggest issues facing the medical research community with multi-drug resistant bacteria responsible for around 400,000 infections and 25,000 deaths in Europe every year.

Working together

The concept for creating a cross-disciplinary research centre at the University to understand infectious diseases was pioneered by the establishment of the Wellcome Trust funded Centre for Immunity, Infection and Evolution (CIIE) in Edinburgh.

Since 2008, CIIE has brought together approximately 30 research leaders in infectious disease, comprising immunologists, infection biologists, mathematical modellers and evolutionary theorists.

Based at Ashworth Laboratories at the King's Buildings campus, the Centre’s research laboratories also include over 120 postdoctoral scientists, postgraduate students and research assistants. One of these scientists is Dr Melissa Ward.

Virus evolution

Melissa was attracted to Edinburgh because of its reputation as a world leader in using genetic sequence information, but the “vibrant city” and “beautiful countryside” also played their part.

After graduating with an MSc in Quantitative Genetics and Genome Analysis in 2008, Melissa decided to stay in Edinburgh for her PhD which looked at the evolution of viruses.

It has been exciting to be able to use my skills as a mathematician to answer important questions about human health, such as where deadly strains of diseases such as avian influenza and HIV are emerging, and how they are spreading.

Dr Melissa Ward
Melissa in Nairobi

In the field

Melissa is now a Junior Research Fellow at the CIIE working with the Urban Zoonoses Project. This large, multi-centre, interdisciplinary project is investigating the major sources of bacterial disease in low-income areas of urban Kenya.

The high human and livestock densities make this location ideal for study and research, and involvement in the project has enabled Melissa to understand both the impact and importance of her work.

I have been able to visit Nairobi and see the study sites first-hand, which has really brought to life the biology and what we are trying to achieve.

Dr Melissa Ward

Antibiotic resistance

In 2014 Melissa was awarded a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Wellcome Trust, which provides funding for her own research to be carried out over the next 4 years. This research looks at how bacteria and their antibiotic resistance evolves and spreads in humans and livestock.

As with previous work, the key to success is collaboration and, alongside work with colleagues within the University, Melissa’s research will include extended visits to the University of Oxford, Harvard School of Public Health and the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi.

Have the confidence to take your opportunities, is Dr Melissa Ward’s advice to current students: Fitting for someone who has gone from undergraduate mathematician to tackling global disease control in less than a decade.