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Dr Pieter Steketee on studying parasites affecting livestock

Pioneering parasitology research, a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship award and dreams of a heavy metal world tour.

Pete Steketee

Dr Pieter Steketee specialises in studying parasites that affect livestock, and finding ways to target the resulting disease. In this interview, he tells us about his experience in laying new foundations in parasitology, his inspiration to become a researcher, and the parallels between science and music.

Could you tell me a bit about your background and your work?

I grew up in the Netherlands and Italy, studied genetics in Manchester and moved to Glasgow for a PhD to study human parasitology before coming to the Vet School here in Edinburgh to work on veterinary parasitology seven years ago. Since then, we've been working on a group of parasites called trypanosomes, which transmit livestock trypanosomiasis. This disease infects livestock mainly in Africa, where it causes more than 3 million cow deaths annually, and an estimated US$4.5 billion in lost revenue. It’s also becoming prevalent in Latin America. There’s no vaccine and current drugs are very old. Their continued use is leading to drug resistance and we simply don’t know enough about the parasite to identify new drug targets, which is what my research is trying to address.

Knowledge about livestock trypanosomes was lacking when I started to learn about their metabolism and biochemistry, so we set out to see if we could identify new ways to target the disease, and we grow these parasites in the lab to investigate them on a molecular level.

What inspired you to follow this career path?

I had an incredibly enthusiastic, motivational biology teacher in high school, and that encouraged me to study science in university. During my degree, I did a placement year in The Gambia, West Africa, working with the Medical Research Council. I worked in virology there, but there were a lot of seminars from parasitologists. Then, I read a popular science book called Parasite Rex, by the journalist Carl Zimmer, which was all about how amazing parasites are and the crazy things they do. I think that’s when I realised I wanted to focus on parasites.

Congratulations on your BBSRC Discovery Fellowship. What was your experience of the application process?

I think the toughest thing for me was to come up with a project that was novel, independent and self-contained, but had possibility for further expansion. I ran a side project to gather data, and then built a hypothesis on one aspect of the parasites’ biology, relating to their metabolism and possible drug targets.

I had the interview in December last year. I think was the most nervous I've been in my life, but it was an incredible and rewarding experience. The BBSRC emailed just before Christmas to tell me they were awarding me the fellowship. It was really nice to go home for the holidays, see my family and celebrate with them.

I think even if I hadn't got it, it would have been a really important experience for my development. Now, I have three years to focus on my research project and I’m feeling a healthy mix of terrified and excited.

What projects will you be working on within the scope of the BBSRC award?

While gathering data, I was trying to find ways to ensure that we could grow different species of the parasite affecting humans and livestock under the same conditions, so that we could compare them. In doing so, we found there are four small molecules that the species of parasite affecting livestock really needs from its host to survive. If you remove these molecules, the parasite dies. That brings questions, such as how are the parasites using these molecules?

The importance of these molecules has never been reported in the context of livestock trypanosomes, so my ambition in this project is to find unique areas of the parasite’s metabolism that we might be able to target with new drugs to treat this disease.

Up until now, do you have a favorite project that you've worked on?

All the projects I've worked on so far have been cool in different ways. I really like the current one, because of how little we know about this parasite. We had been working on the same parasite species, Trypanosoma congolense, for the past few years, but now we’re doing a project with a new species, Trypanosoma vivax, which is even more difficult to maintain in the lab. Nobody knew how to culture that species until we managed to, a couple of months ago. There had been one research group who managed to grow this parasite in the lab in the 1980s and since then, no one has reported success, even using those techniques. The fact that we managed to get it going, and knowing the impact it’s going to have on the path for new discoveries, is really exciting. It’s a tiny field, but we’re at the forefront of it.

This work can create a very positive impact for farmers in Africa who struggle to maintain a cattle herd because of this disease. We have made very good progress, and it's cool to see that come together.

What are some of the challenges that you face in your work?

A lot of science is trial and error, so experiments going wrong or the results not matching your hypothesis can be quite common. This is especially true for a foundational project such as characterising a parasite for the first time. I think it's challenging to deal with that, especially if it happens more often than not. You have ebbs and flows; there'll be weeks where everything's going right, and then there are weeks where nothing goes right. For me, one of the biggest challenges is dealing with the times where experiments don’t work.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist?

It’s important to understand a PhD will be challenging, and you're going to learn a lot about yourself. Something I tell my students is that there is a holy trinity to get the right environment for challenging work. You need the balance of having the right boss, the right lab group, and the right project. If all those three match up, then it's so much easier to meet your ambitions for becoming a scientist. When one of those doesn't quite work out, it makes something like a PhD a lot trickier, and it can become a bit lonely or way too intense. To me, getting those three right is absolutely crucial to enjoy becoming a scientist.

If you were not a scientist what would you like to be doing?

I play guitar in a heavy metal band. I find parallels between music and science. There's logic in both, they both require inspiration and a lot of things are down to calculations and numbers. If I wasn’t a scientist, I would love to think that I'd be a professional musician, touring the world with my heavy metal band.