Verity Hill awarded 2023 Ker Memorial Prize in Infectious Diseases
We are delighted to announce that Dr Verity Hill, from Prof Andrew Rambaut's lab in the School of Biological Sciences, is the winner of this year's prize for her work on Ebola and SARS-CoV-2.
Ker Family gift
The Ker Memorial Prize is awarded annual for the best PhD thesis in infectious diseases submitted at the University of Edinburgh. It is supported by a very genrous gift from Miss Aileen Ker in memory of her father and grandfather, Drs Frank and Claude Ker, physicians in Edinburgh in the early part of the 20th century.
2023 Prize winner
Verity's PhD was funded by the BBSRC EASTBio doctoral training programme and made landmark discoveries about the dynamics of viral epidemics in the era of large-scale viral genomic sequencing. Her thesis was entitled "From epidemics to pandemics: Elucidating the dynamics of Ebola Virus and SARS-CoV-2".
Developing cutting-edge methods, her PhD has contributed to the field of virus evolution and molecular epidemiology by asking important questions about the spatial patterns of epidemics.
In addition to her novel and important research, the award committee recognise the challenges involved in pivoting a PhD midway through so that Verity could lend her skills to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.vvWith no certainty that the work would fit into the thesis, this is a brave and generous move. She seized the opportunity of being part of the UK’s Coronavirus Genomics Consortium (COG-UK), rising to the occasion by producing novel research that was also highly impactful.
For a PhD student to cope with the high stress and time pressured environment involved with government advisory work while creating some of the key computational and analysis tools used by our Public Health agencies is very impressive. The scientific excellence of Verity's research was summarised by her PhD examiners as "arguably the best examples of modern large-scale virus molecular epidemiology in a single country".
Together, these achievements make Verity a worthy winner of the Ker Memorial Prize.
About the research
Viruses mutate as they replicate and spread. When a virus genome is sequenced, we can compare it to other genomes and make a family tree of these viruses, known as a phylogeny. At the same time, we can use information about where and when the viruses were sampled, combined with mutations, to explore how viruses spread in space and time. This is a part of the field of phylodynamics.
In her thesis, she explored how two important viruses, Ebola virus and SARS-CoV-2, have spread on small and large scales by applying phylodynamic methods to extensive genome sequence databases. She made a large-scale simulator of Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, to replay the tape of the epidemic to explore what could have happened under different conditions.
She also studied the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, in particular how Alpha variant evolved; and then investigated trends in the spread of different major COVID-19 waves across the UK, including how the impact of public health restrictions.
Using methods and analyses such as these while epidemics are ongoing can help provide another source of information on which to base public health decisions, and examine the effect of different interventions on the spread and evolution of viruses.
Verity Hill is now a postdoctoral associate at the School of Public Health at Yale University in the US. She did her undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Oxford, where she developed an interest in applying evolutionary theory to understand key drivers in infectious disease transmission.
She then undertook a masters degree in the Control of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. From there, she moved to the University of Edinburgh to conduct her PhD research. She now works on viruses carried by mosquitoes, specifically dengue virus, and develops methods and software to track its evolution as vaccines and other interventions are beginning to be rolled-out.