Professor Andrea Wilson on the genetics of disease and behaviour
Using maths in genetic research, a dream of informing breeding programmes, dealing with rejection and garden landscape.
In this interview with Science Communication Intern Maggie Szymanska, Professor Andrea Wilson tells about her research group on the development of mathematical models and computational tools to understand how the genetics of individuals, combined with non-genetic factors, influence the dynamics of infectious diseases and their impact on the health and performance of individuals and of entire livestock populations.
Andrea is Deputy Head of the Roslin Research Division of Genetics and Genomics and personal chair in Animal Disease Genetics and Modelling.
Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?
Most of my work focuses on trying to understand how the genetics of an individual affect the dynamics of a whole group, especially focusing on disease transmission or aggressive behaviour on a group level. For example, I look at how infectious disease outbreaks are driven by the genetic diversity of animals or how the dynamics of fighting behaviour in a group of animals after mixing is driven by genetics.
How did you become interested in this line of work?
My training and background is actually in mathematics, more specifically, the modelling of dynamic systems. My PhD was in applied mathematics and truth be told, I had never even thought about applying it to biology and animals!
Then, almost accidently, I became involved in animal science and, within that context, I felt that this was a very fascinating area to explore. It was really something that interested me, as it brought the dynamics back into the modelling, as disease is such a highly dynamic process.
Similarly, looking at the behaviour of animals, such as pigs, when they meet, form hierarchies and exhibit aggression, this is all highly dynamic. This field of research really intrigued me, as it combined genetics, which I find fascinating, with dynamics that I had been looking at throughout my career up to that point.
Having that mathematics background sounds very helpful! What do you think the future holds for your research?
I think there is definitely still a lot to explore, there is so much we don’t know! My dream would be that, in the next decade or so, we could use our research to really influence new breeding programs that our research could help with starting to breed animals that help reduce disease or animals that do not get sick to a certain disease.
However, before that happens, there is a lot that needs to be understood, better models have to be formed and better data needs to be collected and analysed. I hope that and my research can help contribute to that, that eventually we will have less disease in animal populations.
That sounds amazing! How would you say your work influences others?
I know how I wish my work influenced others, I don’t know for sure if it does so fully, but hopefully it does to a certain extent! My work is very much at the interface of mathematics, quantitative genetics and epidemiology. It is a bit of everything! Some people tend to misunderstand an aspect of it or just think of it as quite an unusual combination and they tend to ignore it. That’s definitely one reaction I’ve been faced with.
Fortunately, there are also positive reactions and I really hope my work attracts people to do similar projects. By combining all these different fields there is so much to explore and so much to find out. You can bring the best of all these fields together!
So I hope that the positive influence of my research is that people start to think a little differently, that quantitative geneticists start to think in more epidemiological terms and epidemiologists start to think more about genetics. That is what I hope my influence on others is.
I’m sure it is helping! Could you tell me about a challenge you experienced working as a scientist?
I think just being a scientist in itself is challenging, mainly because you need to be able to cope with rejection. Not everyone will like what you do and they may question your work. I’ve especially noticed this as I’ve progressed with my career, that as your science becomes potentially more influential and well-known, you realise that there is a lot of politics involved and you have to be strategic. I guess in my opinion, being able to deal with such rejections and persevering is the biggest challenge.
Could you tell me about your favourite project here at the Institute?
I think I have two favourite projects from my time here. One of the projects focused on the development of new methods to understand how genetics contribute to disease prevalence in a population. It was all about developing the tools, thinking about what data would be needed, how they would be analysed and then designing these new methods and tools around that.
The other project I really enjoyed was working with people from the behaviour group from SRUC, the Scottish Rural College, looking at aggression in pigs. I loved working on this project because there was so many ways you could analyse the data which was very interesting. I also learnt a lot because I did not know a lot about animal behaviour and they are experts in that field. It was a collaboration that worked really well, as I brought the mathematics and they brought the context.
What would you say is your greatest achievement?
I hope the greatest achievement is still to come. Right now, it’s probably that I managed to help combine the fields a little bit. People are really starting to recognise the benefits of mixing epidemiology and genetics, the benefits of multidisciplinarity. I think this might be partially due to the work I do, I really hope I contributed to that because I think it is very important in research.
Was it difficult to combine the fields?
Oh yes it took me a very long time to get my head around it! I first spent years as a mathematician before becoming involved in the field of animal breeding and learning the methods and information needed. I only started combining the two fields’ years later!
Why did you become a scientist?
I’m not good at anything too practical, I’m very clumsy. Working behind a desk is where I’m safest and do my best work, so this mathematical science is great for me.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you do?
I think I would probably be a landscaper. Doing garden landscape or some other creative designs, I think I would really love doing that.