A Career In Vaccination Research
In this week’s blog, Carolyn Nielsen, a graduate of SGGS in 2007, tells us about her valuable time at our school and how her career has developed into vaccination research.
What would you say was the most important and valuable thing that you learnt at SGGS?
Looking back on my time at SGGS, it was hugely beneficial for me to be in an environment that motivated young people to be successful. There was no stigma attached to wanting to be ambitious and this brought out the best in me academically. I joined in 2003 at the start of Year 10 and it took me a little while to settle in, but I was ultimately really happy there and the friendships that I made are still very strong today.
I studied Biology, Chemistry, Maths, French and General Studies at A-Level and also enjoyed the extra-curricular Japanese and Mandarin classes that were on offer. All my teachers were excellent, especially Mr Madden who supported my French and language studies and also Mrs Edwards, one of the Biology teachers who helped me explore different options within Biology which I decided to take at university.
What did you accomplish after achieving your A-levels at SGGS?
After leaving SGGS in 2007, I started at the University of Durham studying Natural Sciences, thinking ecology and conservation would be my main focus but I found I was drawn to immunology, and how the immune system interacts with pathogens. After the first year, I changed my degree to Biology to better reflect my interests. After my undergraduate degree was complete, I decided to do a Master’s in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology for a further two years at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. I was becoming increasingly interested in public health and the John Hopkins School of Public Health was therefore a great environment to be exposed to this field. The two-year degree format also gave me the opportunity for a year-long lab-based project during my second year in 2012, which is part of what inspired me to continue to a career in research and apply for a PhD.
I returned to the UK to do my PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on a vaccine immunology project for 3.5 years. The school was another hub of public health research, so I continued to learn about different ideas related to disease control, but my focus was on immune cells and how underlying infections affect how they can respond to vaccines. As part of my PhD programme, I also did an internship at GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines in Belgium for a couple of months, learning more about vaccine science in a more commercial setting.
Beyond your studies, what did your career look like?
After completing my degrees, I decided it was time to get a job so, in 2016, I started working at the University of Oxford as a Post-doctoral Immunologist on a malaria vaccine project while applying for a 4-year research fellowship, which I then started in 2018.
I also took the opportunity during my PhD and early postdoctoral years be an ambassador with STEMnet, which provides a framework to help researchers in STEM fields do public engagements in schools. I’ve taken part in a range of events over the years including seminars in secondary schools and hands-on activities in primary schools that got students talking about science and thinking about careers in biology or other science subjects. During my visits, I was able to boost exposure to different career paths available and talk about what I was currently working on to give insight into the research sector. I like to give details on my day-to-day activities from experiments in the lab, to analysis of the data, and finally communication of the findings to others at external conferences or through publications.
What has your past year looked like during COVID-19?
The last year has been very exciting since I work at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, where the AstraZeneca vaccine was first developed. I haven’t personally been involved in the work to do with the COVID-19 vaccine, but I am based in the same labs so have many friends and colleagues who are all applying their skills to its development. It’s been amazing to watch that happen and see the huge scale-up of the clinical trials, and also extremely validating to see our immunology expertise being invaluable to the public.
In terms of impact on my work, the COVID-19 trials have taken priority within the lab which has resulted in restricted access for other research groups and many other trials were paused, including the malaria vaccine trials I work on. I was very lucky to have finished a big set of experiments right before lockdown started though and therefore had a lot of data to analyse and write up, which I can do easily from home. I’ve been generally working from home four days a week and then in the lab one day a week for the last year.
Finally, what advice do you wish to pass on to SGGS students who are looking to follow in your footsteps?
It can be difficult in school to grasp the full range of careers available after studying a STEM subject, so it’s important to know that it’s ok to follow your interests as there will certainly be research career options in any of these! Your options will become more obvious to you as you study and find out more about specific fields. Even if you don’t ultimately stay in science, the skillset that you develop, for example, data analysis skills, are very employable and transferable if you change direction.