Dr Lu Lu on diseases that leap from animals to humans
Tracking and predicting the spread of avian flu and other zoonotic diseases, switching career paths, and dreams of becoming an artist.
Dr Lu Lu is a Career Track Fellow, whose research specialises in tracking and predicting the spread and drivers of infectious diseases in both animals and humans, such as bird flu and Covid-19. In this interview, Dr Lu talks about advancing avian flu research, her inspiration to change the direction of her career, and the resilience needed to be a scientist.
Could you tell me about your background and your research in a nutshell?
My academic journey began with a degree in veterinary medicine, followed by a master’s in molecular virology in Beijing, China, where I started working on the influenza virus. Then I decided to come to the UK to pursue my PhD in Evolutionary Biology doing projects on evolutionary dynamics of avian flu viruses at the University of Edinburgh. I then worked in Epigroup, the epidemiology research group at Usher Institute, studying a variety of viruses causing diseases in both human and animals before I moved to the Roslin Institute in April this year.
In a nutshell, my research centres on the study of zoonotic diseases and their spread in response to human behaviour, climate and environmental changes. To understand these complex patterns, I combine genetic sequencing data, epidemiology, and environmental information. Through the application of bioinformatics, analysing the evolution of viruses, and statistical methods, I want to explore how viral pathogens evolve and spread over space and time, and how they transmit among hosts, particularly across species. My work also delves into understanding the driving forces behind disease spread and transmission.
What inspired you switch from veterinary medicine to research?
The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a novel virus with animal origin, deeply affected my country and my life. This experience ignited my passion to contribute meaningfully to the fight against such diseases.
As my interest in infectious disease and microbiology grew, my dedication and academic performance stood out during my veterinary medicine undergraduate. I also had the privilege of participating in a summer camp at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, where I was introduced to the world of scientific research. That's how my research journey began.
Has your recent research been impacted by the current avian flu outbreak?
My career was already focused on zoonotic diseases, and of course avian flu. I have been researching different pathogens that were very important to current public health challenges. This bird flu outbreak is very significant in Europe and around the world, but before this I was also involved in researching Covid-19 outbreaks. I’m used to adapting my research to any zoonotic pathogens that are relevant at the time, and so the kind of impact caused by this current outbreak hasn’t affected my career path.
What are you currently working on, as part of your Career Track Fellowship?
In my current projects on bird flu, I’m trying to combine different types of data to understand the spread of avian flu and what its main drivers are. I have been using phylodynamic modelling, which is essentially a way to use the information from family trees of virus to understand how these viruses change and move through a population, and I combine that data with machine learning technology to predict what might happen next in terms of the spread of bird flu, where and how it might happen.
How do you use machine learning to predict disease spread?
The basis of it is to learn from data – the project entails training models on historical data to recognise patterns and then applying these patterns to forecast future disease spread. I have a solid understanding of avian flu evolution, and experience in handling diverse datasets makes me well equipped to do such research. Additionally, my network of collaborators including colleagues in China, Europe, and the United States provides valuable resources and expertise, which I believe will ensure the success of our project.
Are there any recent findings in the field or an emerging technology that you are excited to explore a bit more through your research?
I'm excited about exploring data from a variety of resources and fields and developing new methods that could merge epidemiology modelling, machine learning and phylodynamics - studying how genetic data and disease transmission data come together - to better study how zoonotic diseases spread. There's still a lot to learn.
Do you have a favourite project that you've worked on?
I love every project I have worked on, but my favourite one is definitely the one I’m working on right now. Because it’s ongoing, I still have lots of questions that haven't been answered, for example, when, where and which strain might cause the next pandemic. It's been a challenge for me, and because avian flu is still a huge problem, it’s very urgent and important that I find out as much as I can, but I enjoy the challenge.
What are some of the challenges that you've faced recently as a scientist?
As scientists, we face loads of challenges. For example, I find that a scientist’s career path is not as clear as it might be in other industries. In academia, it might take a very long time to become established, for example, by becoming a group leader or securing an independent role. It takes a lot of perseverance, sometimes we have to wait for many years before becoming independent.
Another challenge for me is the outcome of publications or grant applications. It’s not easy to secure large rounds of funding, or to get published in very high impact journals. I find that sometimes, even if you try hard and you have a brilliant idea, you might encounter some reviewers who just don't like your work. Grants and publications are not guaranteed as part of our job. It can get frustrating sometimes, and I have to remind myself that I can do this. It’s okay to fail, I just try again, but it can take a lot of resilience.
Ideally, what direction would you like to see your research take?
I would like to perfect the technique to use any data we have now to predict what’s going to happen next, in terms of the spread of a zoonotic disease. We often deal with diseases we don’t know much about – we have explored so many different strategies starting from the first SARS outbreak, then Covid-19, and now avian flu. Throughout all these outbreaks, it feels like we are always one step behind. My biggest hope for the future is to get ahead of these diseases, or at least close that knowledge gap a little bit.
If you were not a scientist, what would you like to be doing?
If I weren't a scientist, I'd pursue a career as a vet to save individual animal lives.
On the other hand, I have always dreamed of becoming an artist, as I love painting. I trained as a painter for about six years when I was young, before I went to university. I believe science and art share a connection, both requiring logical thinking and creativity in their own ways.