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Dr Eleanor Gaunt on respiratory viruses

Understanding the genetic code of viruses and communicating science during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Elly in a lab coat

Dr Eleanor Gaunt is a Group Leader at the Roslin Institute, where she investigates the genetic coding strategies of viruses that cause respiratory diseases, recently focussing on the novel coronavirus. In this interview, she talks to MSc Science Communication student Elise Cutforth about how her work has been applied during the pandemic and how she is spreading important public health messages.

What’s your background?

I am from Yorkshire. I studied medical microbiology at Newcastle University, followed by a PhD in epidemiology of respiratory viruses at the University of Edinburgh, and postdoctoral research on rotaviruses at the University of Cambridge. After completing two more postdoctoral positions in Edinburgh, about two years ago I received a Henry Dale Fellowship to start my own research group.

Why did you become a scientist?

I think it was while reading about the Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I always wanted to go out and be the person hunting down the virus, finding out what was making people keel over and die in very unpleasant ways. I realised how scary that was and decided to work in the lab instead.

What drew you to the Roslin Institute?

I came to Roslin because my former PhD supervisor offered me a job here. After he left, I joined a new group where I was able to learn everything I needed to become a research group leader, which was a goal of mine.

I love Roslin because it’s a fantastic place to do science, and because of the diversity of the science conducted here. To be able to apply other scientists’ research to my own, see the intersections and wonder what scientists in other fields can bring to my work, as well as what they see when they look at my research is such a valuable tool and I think its value is underestimated. Roslin is also near the Pentland Hills where I can go running every day.

Could you tell me about your work on Covid-19?

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, my group were working on the Influenza-A virus. We introduce specific motifs, comprising additional letters, into the virus’ genetic code, which make it stimulate a stronger immune response and stop it from growing.

This sort of work produces ideal vaccine candidates and there is no reason why it would be restricted to flu, so over the past year we have been looking at applying it to the virus that causes Covid-19. We are trying to understand where the suitable sites are in the virus’ genetic code for introducing new motifs, what function they might have, and whether we could alter that composition to see how it affects virus replication.

What work have you done that you are most proud of?

The examples that come to mind are work that has made a real-world difference. I was involved in reading the genetic code of HIV in criminal cases. We had to read the genetic codes of the virus someone was infected with and of the virus infecting the person who had been accused of intentionally transmitting the virus, and trace whether the accusation was supported by evidence. Generating that kind of data, which then went into a court room and would serve as support for a criminal conviction, felt like really important work.

I am very proud of media work I’ve been doing during the pandemic. To be able to reach out to the public and help them understand what’s happening and what is likely to happen next is something that I’ve found incredibly comforting. Although my research itself might not be making a difference, I can still make a difference by communicating science.

What science communication have you been doing?

I’ve been writing news articles and doing lots of radio work – I’ve been on BBC Radio 5 Live about eight times. I was also the scientific expert speaking after a First Minister’s statement on the pandemic. I feel like I’ve been reaching lots of people – I’ve had people I haven’t spoken to in years message me to tell me they saw me on TV. That reassures me that we are reaching a broad audience and that I’ve been able to deliver the basic messages on the value of keeping washing our hands, wearing a face mask and getting the vaccine when possible. The opportunity to be a voice reinforcing these ideas is extremely valuable.

What are the challenges of working in research?

It’s not a nine-to-five job – sometimes you have to work early mornings, evenings and weekends – but if you really love science, that is a compromise you are willing to make, so this is not necessarily a negative. Also, there is always more work to do, so you have to get used to the feeling of being behind and learn to effectively manage your time and prioritise your tasks.

There are certain dogmas that aren’t true anymore, such as the idea that you have to move institutions frequently or you need to publish your research articles in a high-impact journal in order to be successful. I think perceptions are definitely changing and science is becoming even more accessible to people from more diverse backgrounds.

What advice would you give to students going into research?

I’d say you have got to really want to do it, because it is not an easy career and there is so much uncertainty. However, at the same time, it is a unique career because no two days are the same. It is exciting because when you find something new, you are the only person in the world who knows it, and that is the best feeling.

Overall, I’ve had very little encouragement along the way. There have been a few times where people told me that I wasn’t good enough to move to the next stage of my career. I’ve found that if you don’t listen to those voices, you get on just fine. If you really want to do it and you can find a way to believe in yourself, then absolutely go for it.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a scientist?

I think I would be a professional gambler. I like numbers, statistics, staring at things and analysing patterns, so it would be exciting. I’m into sports as well, so understanding how they work in a finer detail would be cool.

Who would you invite as your dream dinner guests?

I don’t need anyone else if the singer Britney Spears is there, but I’d have to invite some of my friends because they are Britney fans. I could also invite David Attenborough, my mum and dad – what a time that would be!

Related links

Genetic insight holds promise of Covid-19 vaccine

Lessons from the latest coronavirus

Opinion article by Dr Gaunt in iNews