We recognize science can seem difficult to young scientists, and we hope to raise awareness about people who make it fun and accessible to broader audiences through social media, #SciComm!
We'd like to welcome Morgan from @virus.vs.labcoat! Her channel is full of snapshots of her day-to-day labwork as well as personal insights into challenges she's faced as she navigates her PhD program and how she's overcome them.
We've been discussing a lot about the importance of science communication in fighting the infodemic and we're lucky enough to have a virologist like Morgan to share her thoughts on the topic. Read on to join the discussion!
Tell us a bit about the research you are doing - how did you end up working in vaccine development?
My PhD project is studying how to rationally design a vaccine and therapeutic (monoclonal antibody) by looking at the structure of the virus and seeing what parts (epitopes) are the most optimal for inducing an antibody response/ binding antibodies. I’m not just doing this for a single virus but actually a whole subgroup of viruses related to Japanese Encephalitis virus. 👩🔬
Some of these are quite dangerous and require higher containment, so my colleagues came up with a way to make them safe to study.☣️
Essentially, they made a chimeric virus- where the ‘non-structural’ parts required for the virus to replicate are from an insect-specific virus and the structural parts that form the virus are from the pathogenic human viruses. 🔆
These viruses can therefore only infect and replicate in insect cells. In fact, these viruses can function as a vaccine on their own, as they look exactly like pathogenic virus but cannot replicate in vertebrate cells.
You mentioned that when you were in high school and undergrad, academia wasn’t necessarily your forte, but due to hard work and passion, you found your way to where you are today. Tell us about your journey!
Yes, my journey to studying my PhD was not straight and narrow in any respect. ↪️
I was bullied severely in primary school and developed anxiety as a result. That anxiety destroyed any confidence I had in the classroom and as I progressed through to high school I became more and more withdrawn. I fell into a deep depression and refused to attend school during what should have been my most important academic years. 📚
"I home-schooled myself for 5 years and managed to scrape together the scores I needed with a bit of help, to get into the Biotechnology program at the University of Queensland."
I became obsessed with science during those years of school, particularly the prospect of genetic engineering and that’s really what led me to decide to make something more for myself and pursue that. ⭐
I was completely disenfranchised with traditional education at this point, but I had essentially prepared myself for what independent study was by going my own way. I had no clue how to properly prepare for exams and as a result really struggled in those first few years at Uni.
Infectious diseases piqued my interest and I approached a potential supervisor just to give it a shot, knowing full well that my grades weren’t great. Surprisingly, he saw potential in me and took me on. I was very tentative at first but once I got going in the lab, I felt I was really thriving. 😎
It was hard learning to accept failure, but I seemed to have a knack for the research and out-performed top grade students who didn’t seem to take to it the way I did.
"I think there is so much more than just having an aptitude for rote learning when it comes to being a successful researcher. Ingenuity, initiative, resourcefulness, creativity, skill and adaptability are more important!" 💪✨
Mental health is really important, and many graduate students struggle with depression and anxiety.
You talk about your own battles ⚔️ and how you’ve worked through them. What is one piece of advice you’d like to share with those who are struggling right now?
It's not easy, you have to push yourself and these issues make it that much harder for you to achieve your goals 🎯. Still, overcoming adversity really does fortify who you are and what you want.
Depression gave me plenty of time to think on myself, to know who I am and what I want. I wouldn’t be anywhere near as resilient if I hadn’t gone through that.
The anxiety I still struggle with today is not all bad, it puts things into perspective, helps me to centre myself in reality and appreciate the irrationality of these thoughts. There are good traits that these challenges can afford you. ✔️
I don’t think I will ever get over my anxiety. What has helped is focusing less on what society’s/people’s perception of me is and more on what I want for myself.
Be selfish with your mental health. What do I want to do with my life? Who do I want to become? You can’t let these issues hold you back. 🤔
Seek help and start talking about your problems, you’ll find many who can relate and once you do, the shame you associated with it will dissipate.
"If you need therapy, medication, whatever, there should be no shame. These things allow us to simply regain control and function as we should. Accepting that these struggles are part of who you are but that they do not define you, is what will make you stronger and more determined to succeed." 💫
The field of virology is getting a lot of attention right now and virologists and vaccine researchers such as yourself are in the spotlight. 💡
You recently posted some interviews such as with Next Health where you shared your thoughts on SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 from a scientific perspective.
What is the biggest misconception that is circulating about viruses right now?
I guess that it was man-made. This stems from people’s lack of knowledge on where viruses originate.
Viruses replicate in cells; insects🐜, animals🐖, humans👤, plants🌱, bacteria, amoeba... People want to point a finger but they don’t want to point that finger at Mother Nature.
The idea that this virus was created by a nefarious scientist in China is more apt for many people who want to push their own biases. The more logical and probabilistic scenario is that the virus has a natural origin.
Viruses exist in animal reservoirs and spill over into humans when the right conditions arise. We have evidence that suggests this is the case and none that suggest the virus was man-made. 🙅
You tell people this and they’ll say- “oh well, of course there would be no evidence, it’s a cover-up”. All the evidence we need is present in the virus genetic code itself. Nothing to suggest genetic manipulation, everything to suggest emergence from animals in nature.
That’s what the science says and we are only going to get more and more evidence on the natural origins of SARS-CoV-2. 🌎
As I mentioned in the previous question, science communication is really important both not only to make science accessible but to correct misinformation. ❗
From anti-vaxxers to climate change deniers, why do you think there are such movements of public distrust against science? As science communicators, what are some things we can do to combat this?
To translate science into products that benefit us, it has to be profitable. Developing medicine and products is hugely expensive 💰 because it requires testing in humans. Companies have to recoup the costs of all the failed products.
I think, the public only sees big pharma companies making money. They don’t see the people behind the product. How that product actually benefits us. They take it all for granted.
There’s a fear of what science is capable of. To combat this, education is key. Appreciation for how science has dramatically improved the world we live in. 🤗
However, science is often mundane and boring. We want entertainment, immediate satisfaction. I think the form of science communication needs to change to keep up with that. It’s not ideal, but necessary.
People don’t want to listen to some pretentious professor describing in boring detail their latest results. It’s not easily digestible. I think injecting some personality and promoting the science in a way that is completely transparent is the right way forward. 📢
"Endorse not just a scientist’s research, but a scientist as a person. I’m looking forward to a day where we have diverse scientists in mainstream media as celebrities, as well as role models."
Do you have any last words of advice or thoughts you’d like to share on how it’s like to be a graduate student working in a lab?
I get questions all the time asking me “should I do a PhD, what program should I apply for, what project should I work on?” etc.🙇
This all has to be self-driven 💥👊💥. A PhD is not just another degree, it’s about becoming an independent researcher. Someone who can think of new hypotheses’, of ways to answer those research questions and drive the experiments to test it.
You aren’t expected to be able to achieve this in the beginning, but you have to have potential for it. You can’t ask the person next to you for the answer. You can’t ask your supervisor relentlessly to help you do something. No one will be there to hold your hand through it all.
The desire to do it needs to come from within 🌟. If you aren’t ready to answer these questions yourself then you aren’t ready to start a PhD.
"It’s hard work, a marathon, not a sprint. Perseverance is probably the most important trait you need to have and learn, to make it in a lab."
What's the most fascinating virus that you’ve studied?
I’ve only ever studied viruses from the same family- flaviviruses (Yellow fever, West Nile virus, Dengue, Zika etc) so I’m biased in that I think they are the best.
It’s a bit gruesome but seeing the damage they do in Mice 🐁 is both terrible and fascinating. West Nile virus infection causes encephalitis, where the virus gets into their brain and causes paralysis.
"It’s truly fascinating to see that kind of devastation first hand and to know that these viruses are capable of that in humans too. It helps put into perspective why I’m doing all this work- to fight these viruses in the first place."
Favorite and least favorite assay/lab technique?
Virus purification and virus purification haha. 😍
Basically, I infect my insect cells then harvest the growth medium multiple times over a week then purify virus from that. It goes from a litre of sample to less than 50 microlitres of pure virus.
I love this technique because at the end you can get some beautiful results where you can see the virus with the naked eye. It refracts light to appear blue! 💙
I also hate this technique just because of how time consuming it is. It takes multiple days to achieve and then many times I get negative results, where I can’t purify the virus and have to try again. 📅
That’s just how it is.
Favorite way to unwind after a long day in the lab?
If you follow me on IG you’d be well aware it’s watching anime. That, and snuggle time with my kitties. My insta stories are half science and half cats- you’re welcome. 😹
You posted that you’re from Byron Bay – what’s your favorite local hangout?
When I dropped out of school, my Dad and I would go for a surf🏄 every morning in Byron at the Pass (occasionally at lil’ Wategos, but I saw a shark there once too often to make that a regular thing). After our surf we’d go have brekky (dessert for me) at the Pass Café.
It’s best surfing in the winter because then it’s really only locals and the water is crystal clear!
We’ve seen so many posts of your “cell towers”. What’s the most number of cell culture flasks you’ve had to go through in a day?
I only usually do 20 flasks to grow my viruses, but I’ve had a single week where I went through about 100 flasks. My lab manager was not happy haha. 🙃
Favorite female scientist(s) who has worked or is currently working in your field?
It’d have to be Professor Akiko Iwasaki! Her science communication is just so real. She addresses many of the concerns and issues that us scientists and students have to deal with, especially issues concerning woman in academia.
It’s just refreshing to know there are female professors out there like her really changing the game 🌠. She’s inspired me to not just accept the status quo- but to really strive for something better. Not only that, but her research is super impressive and highly regarded in the field!