One step at a time, and never give up: Meet Mariana Avezum

Mariana Avezum, TU München, is taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on 7th July with the talk:“How will we get to work in 20 years?”






SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

MA: To be able to join my research ambitions, while doing some teaching in the process. I really like to investigate new approaches to solve problems,  and working with students is always a very cool way to get in contact with new and creative ideas.

SS: How did you get your current position?

MA: I knew my professor from my classes as a student, and had always done projects at his chair. I thus knew the people there, and knew they were very cool to work with. When I was searching for “What to do next” I simply talked to the professor, showed him some of my previous work, paid him a coffee, and that was that!

SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?

MA: A typical day for me can be separated between teaching meetings, and my own research. For teaching, I am usually in meetings with students, giving them feedback on their work, going through preparations for the next steps, and thinking what could be improved. In my own research, on the other hand, I simulate urban traffic, and try to come up with different ideas how to make urban transport more efficient, such as what would happen if we were to merge everything together. Working on such different projects makes sure that there is never a boring day!


SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

MA: Combining different modes of transportation in a single route. Because the most efficient way to get from A to B will never be just about cars, or any single mode, and you will always need to combine different approaches. The fact that the companies working on these are so different from each other, however, makes this integration very hard and interesting, but also presents a huge room for improvement.

SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

MA: Mobility research can very quickly become very sensitive, and thus, data privacy is a huge concern. You need to make sure that when you are analyzing how to optimize a route from A to B, you don’t keep any confidential data in places it shouldn’t be, and that the user is always in control.

SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?

MA: A friend told me it would be cool! I also like motivating other people to join and stay in STEM, and hearing about the work that other scientists do is always very inspiring!


SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?

MA: One step at a time, and never give up. Things are usually more doable than they seem, and perseverance goes a long way in making things actually work out. If you give up, you pass the message to other girls to do the same, and that’s never the correct answer. I know it seems like the men achieve things more easily, but the truth of it is, is that they simply hide their insecurities better. We all get lost sometimes.


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Solving Puzzles: Meet Maria Spletter

Dr Maria Spletter is a researcher based at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, who will be taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on  Saturday 7th July 2018.






SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

MS: I have always been drawn towards science. I made my first plant taxonomy book with my Grandma when I was 4. My parents got me a real microscope (not just one of the pocket ones) when I was 10. Just for fun I would observe plants or pond water samples. My family always supported and promoted my curiosity, and so it was just natural to pursue a degree and then a career in scientific research.

SS: How did you get your current position?

MS: I did my postdoc at the Max Planck for Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany. I established connections with the university and when I started to apply for positions, I also sought out a group at the LMU that could host me for an Emmy Nother application (start-up funding from the DFG). I also had an offer in Sweden, and the chair of my department, Andreas Ladurner, made me a competing offer to keep me in Munich. I ended-up accepting that offer to be an independent group leader.

SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?

MS: A lot of my day is spent on the computer, either writing grants, writing papers, reviewing papers, correcting presentations and documents written by my students, researching or keeping-up with the literature. I also spend a lot of time mentoring my students in lab, demonstrating techniques, going through their data or planning the next steps in their projects. Finally, I teach Biochemistry I to medical students in the summer.


SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

MS: I love discovering new things and solving puzzles. I my research we use genetics to try to understand how muscles are built and what goes wrong in muscle diseases. To use an analogy, it is the equivalent of first identifying the pieces in a computer and then figuring out how to put them together and how they interact with each other to make the computer work. We have one gene in lab we work on that we recently discovered plays a role in neurons as well as in muscles. No one knew this before, and now we have many new questions to answer, like does the gene have the same job in muscles and neurons, or does it have different jobs in those two cell types?


SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

MS: I feel I work with two main challenges. The first is finding funding. Much of the financial support in Europe is linked to a timeline, and if you come from a different system (I’m originally from the USA) or if you get unlucky and your project takes a year or two longer than planned, it can make you ineligible. You also have to learn how to spin your proposal to match the interests of the reviewers to get funded, which can be tricky.

Second, I find it a challenge to focus on a single topic and simplify my research questions. I am interested in many different things and many different questions, but we don’t have the time or the personnel or financial resources to investigate everything.

SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?

I just published a huge paper that is the culmination of 8 years of work. It is a resource paper looking at every gene expressed in a muscle cell at 8 different points in development and tracking how different groups of genes change their expression. We discovered a large change in gene expression in the middle of muscle development, much to our surprise, that lead us to a deeper understanding of how muscle fibers mature and achieve their specific contractile characteristics.


SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?

MS: I really love what I do, and I like the chance to share our findings with the public. I do basic research, and many people do not understand what that is or why it is important. I hope that talking in Soapbox science might allow me to reach more people to convince them that science is worth the investment, and to help them better understand the biomedical research and development process.


SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?

MS: I find research a rewarding and fulfilling career. In my field it isn’t so much attracting women, as retaining women that is the problem. Work-life balance is difficult when you have a demanding career and children, but not impossible. The biggest thing is you have to believe in yourself, trust your own instincts and realize that you don’t have to do everything. At the same time, you need to be willing to dig-in, stick-it-out and compete with the boys when necessary. From my perspective, to help women you need to provide daycare that actually matches working hours and give support options to allow women to travel to conferences and attend evening events. Being flexible without lowering expectations and removing time limits or adding exceptions without penalizing women who use them would also help.

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From the telescope to the microscope: how the lunar eclipse made me be a microbiologist. Meet Laura Cutugno

I’m Laura Cutugno, young PhD researcher in the field of Microbiology at NUI Galway, Ireland, taking part in Soapbox Science Galway on 7th July. I’m from Italy, in particular from Sicily, a beautiful and warm island in the south of Italy. I graduated in Biotechnologies and am passionate about science and microscopic life! I’ll be one of the speakers during the Soapbox Science event in Galway and, in the meantime, I would like to tell you the story of how I became a researcher.

When I was a kid, I was sitting in my living room with my dad and someone on the TV was announcing the lunar eclipse. I asked my dad what it was, and he thought about it for few seconds and then ran to the kitchen. “I need to show it to you,” he said. He took a flashlight, an orange and a small lime. “The flashlight is the sun, the orange is the Earth and the lime is the moon,” he said, and he showed me what happens when the flashlight, the orange and the lime are aligned and the “orange” projects its shadow on the “lime”. That was the moment that I understood how interesting science is.

Figure 1. Lunar eclipse phases

Despite this romantic beginning, now I’m not an astrophysicist, but a microbiologist. How this happened is a really long story, made of books about the life of great women and scientists, like Marie Curie, Rita Levi Montalcini and Margherita Hack. My story is of a modest university in Palermo, Sicily, with good professors and a great woman that showed me the beauty of the microscopic world and increased my passion and curiosity for those small and invisible organisms called bacteria. She was a great lecturer who dedicated her whole life to science and to the University. She told me once “Laura, people think that a woman with an important position in academia is a weird exception, I would like this to be the rule.” She was a woman, a mother, a scientist and a lecturer. Her enthusiasm and her dedication to her students was always surprising for me and a great inspiration for my career. She is a fundamental part of this story, together with long hours of study and long hours of packing that brought me to Ireland from the south of Italy, to realise my dream of being a scientist.

Figure 2. From the top (clockwise): Rita Levi Montalcini, Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Margherita Hack.

And now it’s in Galway that I’m doing my PhD. Here I study the ability of bacteria to sense and respond to changes in the environment and how they can escape from potentially lethal conditions. The most interesting thing is that these small organisms possess something similar to a brain… yes, a brain in a microbe! This brain is called STRESSOSOME and it’s a small but great machine made up of small components, proteins. It has several “sensors-proteins” that can sense the changes in the environment; when something potentially dangerous for the bacterium is happening, the sensors transmit the information to other components and these release in the cell those that we can call the “messengers-proteins”. These messengers pass the information to a small protein, the effector-protein. This small protein is able to reprogram the bacterial cell from the “safe and happy” status to the “alarm and defence” status. This machine is so complex that one person is not enough to study it, that’s why I’m part of a Marie Sklodowska-Curie European Network, named PATHSENSE, made up by 13 young researchers that try to understand the structure, the operation and the effects of this microscopic brain.

Figure 3. ITN PATHSENSE logo. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 721456

That’s what I study and what brought me to Galway, and that’s what I will talk about during the Soapbox Science event in Galway. Because I love this project and I love bacteria and, like every person in love, I can’t stop talking about it and I would like everyone to know something more about the “brain of microbes”!

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Fascinating flying machines: Meet Simone Weber

Simone Weber is seconded from Airbus Helicopters UK to do a PhD in the School of Aerospace, Transport, and Manufacturing at Cranfield University. Whilst doing her PhD she is also the Technology Integration Manager, responsible for combining the technical aspects within the research project BladeSense. This project aims to mount fibre optic sensors along the length of a blade to determine its ‘health’ and identify early on whether there are any changes to the way in which it is behaving. While the project partners are developing the instrumentation system, Simone is focusing on developing a mathematical framework that allows the definition of optimal spatial mapping for the used fibre-optic sensors. This is important to be able to detect rotor blade damage at an early stage.

Her soapbox talk will be: “Sherlock Holmes: who broke his helicopter?”

You can catch Simone on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

SW: After graduating from University of Applied Sciences in Munich in 2012, I joined Airbus Helicopters UK (AH UK) as a Mechanical Design Engineer. Alongside developing solutions for customers, I also had the chance to work in the installation and maintenance department to gain some knowledge from an application point of view. This experience enabled me to look at design problems from a global picture to make processes and design changes smoother for all parties. Yet, after working in design for almost 10 years, I started to miss the academic side. I began to feel bored and I certainly needed a change and a new challenge (I am certainly not bored anymore!). During my time working with helicopters in Germany and in the UK I have always been interested in the main rotor system, which in my opinion is the most exciting part of these fascinating flying machines. Hence, I wanted to do my own research project in this area and I approached Cranfield University to find out whether they would be interested. Finding financial means turned out to be the most difficult part. However, after convincing AH UK to fund my PhD, I was then setting up the research project BladeSense with the help of Cranfield University to create this excellent opportunity not only for the company but also for me. This PhD allows me not only to refocus and strengthen my technical abilities but also to learn the necessary management skills to be able to lead a research project.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

SW: My grandfather has been a lifelong inspiration to me. He always encouraged me in finding simple solutions to any sort of complex problems, and I loved the creativity involved and the part of building and implementing it into reality. Still nowadays, he amazes me with the sort of solutions he comes up with and I still enjoy building all sorts of things with him!

My interest in aerospace started quite late. After moving away from the countryside to start my studies in automotive engineering (seemingly obvious after growing up in the region where BMWs are being built!) only then did I discover my fascination for aerospace engineering. It was triggered by something that was probably the reason for many of the first pioneers who built flying machines: the freedom of being able to fly wherever one’s heart desires.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SW: I am very lucky to work on a project with a scope as big as BladeSense. It covers aspects ranging from structural model development, to aerodynamics, optimisation, all the way to experimental testing. I absolutely love the combination of theory and practice and to be able to work with such a great team on this project. Also, leading the project from a technological perspective gives me a great insight to what each project partner is developing. This enables me to learn even more!

The most wonderful part of my career path is that with being an engineer, learning how to work as a scientist, and understanding how research projects are managed it enables me to look at the bigger picture in order to make a change in society someday.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

SW: I think Soapbox Science is an excellent opportunity to tell young people about how exciting it can be working in science, and how important it is that each of us contributes in making a change to this world. I am also keen to share my experience of working in a male dominated sector and take any worry away from young women by explaining how significant their role is just by being and thinking as a woman. I am convinced that with a team of equal gender the best results can be produced. While looking forward to passing on my knowledge and experiences during my path of becoming an aerospace engineer, I am really curious about all the questions I will get asked. I am sure that this will help me look at my research problem at a completely different angle.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

SW: Excitement!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

SW: Science is very much driven by success. If we fail the business is not interested anymore. This is also very much reflected in publically available research papers which often only present successful findings. Rarely do we find papers about what lessons have been learnt. I think as a scientist or engineer failure should be allowed, because only by that we can learn and improve ourselves – and this knowledge should be shared.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

SW: Be passionate and active about what you do. I think those two are the key drivers for anyone doing a PhD. As a women, however, I think there is an additional degree of confidence, persistence, and strength required. Sometimes we fall, but it matters how to get back up again only to be stronger. One final, but important piece of advice: Keep on smiling and have fun because that is the key to getting great ideas!


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Bringing Soapbox to Windsor: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly Weather!

By Dr. Rosa-Maria Ferraiuolo

Why We Brought Soapbox to Windsor… Hosting an event for the first time in a city that has never heard of it before is a very scary task. Only a handful of people in Windsor have heard of what Soapbox Science is and those people are my colleagues because I had the pleasure of being one of 12 speakers at the first Canadian Soapbox at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario!  Soapbox Science Toronto was an amazing experience! It was completely different from any other public event I’ve attended and presented. I wanted to be a part of Soapbox Science so that I can be a part of showing that women can be in science and so that I could try to and show young children that science can be fun and exciting! Having one of the young girls ask about cancer, what it is, how you can get it and me showing her by having her go through my props was one of the most memorable parts of my day! Having her smile at the end and say thank you still makes me smile! You can’t beat the curiosity of the children wanting to know more and asking questions that we as scientists sometimes forget to think about. This event truly revived my love for science. On the train ride back home and getting back into my lab, I couldn’t stop talking about how this was the best experience I’ve had in years! I have always been proud to be a woman in science but being a part of Soapbox Science Toronto made me even prouder! I think we can change the vision of science that the public has, and we can show them that women can be powerful thinkers and we can make a difference!

This year instead of being a speaker I brought the event to Windsor as a local organiser! We had 12 fabulous women from all areas of science. We had experts in the field of computer science, artificial intelligence, biology, physics and medicine!


Before the event… Being a local organiser for an event that has never happened before definitely is difficult. People do not know what this event is and often shy away from helping or wanting to commit to something. The hardest part was trying to get speakers. Even with so many social media outlets and emailing various departments of different universities, not many people initially responded to the call. If I had to change one thing, I would have changed the date that I chose to host the event. We hosted it May 12, 2018 alongside Science Rendezvous. This promoted the event beyond what I believed imaginable; but my speaker selection became more difficult because of the date. If I had chosen a date in the Fall, I would have had more researchers available who normally go away to other places for field work. I was in a bit of a panic once I realized not many people were available; thinking I wouldn’t be able to host the event, but my wonderful organizing committee kept pushing and getting the word out and then came the difficult task of choosing 12 speakers out of so many wonderful women. As the day approached the long list of tasks to do was getting smaller, but the looming weather reports was my next hurdle.


The day of… Finally, the day arrived! My excitement was through the roof, but as I opened my eyes in the morning, all I could hear was the booming thunder! Yes, the worst weather we could have; thunderstorms all day followed by extremely cold weather and gusts of wind. Since this is an outdoor event, I had message after message coming from all the speakers and the volunteers, “are we still doing this?” As they say, the show must go on! We had to change one rule for the safety of all those attending and because many props were not allowed to get wet, we had to be under the overhang of a building. We were still outside; the speakers and volunteers were troopers! We were all cold and all my volunteers were soaked trying to get the public to the event space, but we did it! We hosted a successful event and all the speakers want to do it again (just hopefully with nicer weather!). Many speakers didn’t want to get off their soapboxes and we finally had a change in weather with 5 minutes left in the event which drew more families to the speakers. With an outdoor event you can’t predict the weather and you can’t control those elements, but Soapbox speakers are always filled with a different kind of energy that keeps them going and makes the event the best it can be!

Even though it was difficult at the beginning and we had the worst weather, being the local event organiser has been an amazing experience and we are excited to have hosted the event. My wonderful volunteers worked so hard to make sure that this event became a success in hopes of continuing to run this event in the coming years!

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The time of the stereotypical stuffy academic is over!: Meet Jennifer Rudd

Dr Jennifer Rudd (@jruddchemist)has always been interested in applied science and travelling. She spent her Masters year in Germany, followed by a PhD in Switzerland. Dr Rudd then received a Fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation and spent 18 months in America. (She is pictured here at the Wright Brother’s Memorial, North Carolina, USA.) Dr Rudd wants to contribute to the international efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. She has worked on next generation solar cells, produced hydrogen from water and has now turned her attention to carbon dioxide. Dr Rudd’s current project at the Energy Safety Research Institute at Swansea University is turning carbon dioxide into the fuels of our future.

Dr Rudd will be taking part in Soapbox Science Swansea on Saturday 23rd June 2018 with the talk: “Converting carbon dioxide into the fuel of the future”


SS: How did you get to your current position?

JR: Interestingly it was Soapbox Science, in a convoluted manner! I volunteered at the 2015 Swansea SS and met Dr Charles Dunnill from whom I learnt about the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI), 2 years and 1 little boy later I interviewed at ESRI with Charlie’s colleague Dr Enrico Andreoli [and got the job!].

The longer story is that I did an undergraduate degree at the University of York in chemistry, then a PhD in Switzerland working on dye-sensitised solar cells and catalysts for water splitting. This was followed by a Fellowship to work in North Carolina, USA working on water splitting (again!) and now I’m at ESRI trying to convert carbon dioxide into fuels.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

JR: My Mother is a mathematician and my Dad is a marine engineer (and an ex-submariner). I always thought I would be an engineer but I didn’t like physics. Then I decided to be a professional clarinet player but my music teacher told me that if I did science I could always keep playing clarinet. If I stayed with the clarinet I would lose my science. I chose science. I also had some great [female] chemistry teachers at school.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

JR: I love knowing that the work I do can solve a pressing problem. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached unprecedented levels and we have to work on a global scale to reduce them. What better way could there be than turning them into the fuels that our energy-hungry world needs?


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

JR: Soapbox Science is a fantastic opportunity to engage with the public. I think that the time of the stereotypical stuffy academic sat in an office thinking lofty thoughts is over. Taxpayers pay a portion of my salary and they are owed an explanation of what that money goes towards. In addition, the general public need to know about the rising levels of carbon dioxide and the implications of that on our future. Hopefully I will have an impact on people’s carbon footprints from taking part in this event.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

JR: Anticipation


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

JR: I would change how primary caregivers are seen and the support mechanisms in place for them. Academia is an all-encompassing endeavour and this means that trying to balance work and a family life is a real challenge. In addition, researchers on part-time contracts can be seen as less committed than their full-time counterparts. Accepting that caring is not just a female role would be a real step forward as would more funding being made available for researchers needing flexible working conditions.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

JR: Don’t be put off. If someone says no, find someone who will say yes – that’s how I ended up in Switzerland and America!

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Hunting Viruses: Meet Alyson Kelvin

By Dr Alyson Kelvin

Soapbox Science Halifax is coming up quickly. In my previous post, I introduced myself as a virologist, and I discussed the purpose of Soapbox Science and the importance of supporting women in STEM. As I look forward to the event, I am preparing my presentation and activities for the day, focusing on my research and interests in virology. I am ready to discuss with you the basics of viruses, my work on developing vaccines at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology (CCfV), and HOW I Hunt Viruses….


A Bit About Viruses

Picture 1: credit Don Stoltz

Viruses are considered intracellular parasites since viruses are only able to be active and reproduce once inside a cell (Picture 1). Scientists often debate whether or not viruses are living because alone, they are not active and instead require the machinery of a living cell to function. Ranging in size from 20 to 400 nanometers (typically 20-110), viruses are microscopic and can’t be seen by the naked eye. They exist all around us, including in the air, water, and dirt, as well as inside the cells of bacteria and animals.  Although viruses are typically associated with disease, viruses don’t always cause illness. In some cases, viruses are beneficial, such as the oncolytic viruses that destroy cancer cells, and bacteriopahges – viruses of bacteria – that can be employed to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. To combat disease-causing viruses, our human bodies as well as other multi- and single-cell organisms have developed defense systems known as immune systems. With respect to human and animal disease, we have invented vaccines and antivirals to extend our protection during infection when our natural immune defense systems are unable to cover a particular deleterious virus. My work and the work of my colleagues at CCfV and IWK is focused on improving vaccines, evaluating existing vaccines, and — importantly — developing vaccines for the new and threatening viruses that are emerging, such as Ebola and Zika.


Viruses are categorized by family and each virus family is defined by the virus’s genetic material which encodes the proteins needed for the virus to function.  Unlike animals and plants which only have DNA as the genetic hereditary material, the genome of viruses can either be composed of DNA or RNA. Beyond this basic dichotomy of DNA or RNA, the viral genome is classified by its structure and order.  This can be double-stranded, single-stranded, positive sense, negative sense, or retroviral meaning moving from RNA to DNA and the structure may be linear, circular, segmented, or gapped.


picture 2: credit Don Stoltz

The complete virus particle is referred to as the VIRION. The virion contains genetic material and proteins responsible for infecting cells and moving the viral genome between cells.  The viral surface and structural proteins typically give each virus a shape characteristic of its virus type. The virion can take on various shapes and sizes including, spherical, geometric, and cylindrical (Picture 2). The nucleic acid genome of the virus is protected by a protein coat. Some viruses also have an envelope that is typically formed from a host cell membrane during virus egress (i.e., when virus escapes from a host cell). Influenza viruses, for example, are enveloped viruses of the Orthomyxovirus family that contain receptors creating an overall spherical structure covered in nobs or lollipop-shaped proteins. Differing is the Ebola virus, a member of the Filovirus family. The Ebola virus is long and tube-like or filamentous in structure, inspiring the Filovirus family name.


How does one become infected with a virus? Understanding how viruses spread is inherently important to knowing how to keep from becoming infected. The spread of viruses between hosts – from one infected host to a susceptible one – is called transmission. There are several different modes of transmission for viruses. Transmission can be grouped as either being Direct or INDIRECT. Direct transmission occurs by direct contact with an infected source either by touching, kissing, sexual intercourse, or droplet spray. Bloodborne viruses are viruses present in an infected host’s blood; they can be spread to a susceptible host through direct contact. Examples of bloodborne transmitted viruses are HIV and Hepatitis B. Vertical transmission is another type of direct transmission and occurs when a virus is passed from an infected mother to her infant either during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.


Conversely, viruses transmitted by indirect means use a vehicle to move the virus from one host to another.  Indirect spread may occur through 1.) the air; 2.) contact of contaminated non-living objects (such as touching a door knob that was previously used by sick person); or 3.) living vectors.   Respiratory viruses such as influenza can be spread through the air when an infected host coughs, sneezes, or breathes. The release of virus particles allows the virus to move in the air and be inhaled into the respiratory tract of a susceptible host. Viruses also may gain access to uninfected hosts through oral transmission. Oral transmission occurs when viruses contaminating food and water are ingested, leading to infection. Examples of viruses using oral transmission include rotavirus, enterovirus, and coxsackievirus, which is the agent for hand-foot-and-mouth disease.


Vectorborne transmission is a type of indirect transmission that is responsible for the emergence of several novel viruses threatening the health of humans. Vectorborne transmission is the transmission of a virus through the medium of an insect such as a mosquito, tick, or fly. Specifically, viruses transmitted by an insect are referred to as an arthropod-borne virus or arbovirus. ZIKA virus and Dengue virus are examples of viruses spread by insects, specifically by the bite of a mosquito. Through the bloodmeal of a mosquito or tick, viruses can be picked up from a reservoir animal species, such as monkeys, and during a subsequent feeding on humans, the virus may spread from the now virus-carrying insect to a susceptible uninfected human.  The U.S. CDC has recently reported that infectious diseases spread by mosquitos and ticks are on the rise, reinforcing the importance of studying insect-transmitted viruses.


Emerging viruses are the unknown threat to human and animals. Over the past 15 years there have been several examples of emerging infectious diseases that have significantly affected human health making global headlines in newspapers, on TV, and on the internet.  Examples include the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, the emergence of SARS in 2003 in the Guangdong, and the most recent ZIKV outbreak in the Americas. These viruses have significant impact on humans because humans are naïve to these pathogens having no previous exposure or immunity.



Emerging Viruses and Virus Hunting


My main interests are investigating how emerging viruses and pathogens move from their animal reservoir to infect humans and cause disease. Following a virus from its emergence to human infection and illness is Virus Hunting. Most of the viruses that infect and cause disease in humans today originated in animals such as birds, bats, or non-human primates. The emergence event where a virus transmits from an animal and infects a human is called “zoonosis” or, colloquially, as “spillover” between species. My interest and the public health importance of understanding emerging pathogens has led me to investigate viruses such as influenza, Zika, Chikungunya, and SARS. It is important to be continually researching how emerging viruses are spilling over into humans, who may be susceptible to developing severe disease, and how we can prevent spillover.


Zika virus emerged in Brazil in 2015 and was a cause of public health concern as Zika cases were correlated with an increase in infants born with microcephaly (severely smaller heads). Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, making it an arbovirus or vectorborne virus. A combination of epidemiology, in vivo modeling, and molecular studies showed that Zika virus specifically targeted the brain cells of developing fetuses, leading to neuronal cell death, underdeveloped infant brains, and smaller heads in infected babies. Being on the frontlines of scientific investigation during an outbreak allows me to directly help people suffering from diseases that are mysterious in origin and in mechanism. Helping people understand the virus affecting them and how they may treat or prevent disease through antiviral therapy, vaccination, or by inhibiting transmission is the most rewarding part of my job. As Zika was taking hold of South America, I developed a free smart phone App called ZikaTracker with international colleagues to track the spread of the virus and the disease it was causing throughout the world. The App could be downloaded for free by anyone with a computer or smart phone, allowing them to report an incident of Zika infection, the location of the infection, and if disease was associated with the infected case. The App was designed to help the public become aware if Zika was present in their community, help scientists track the disease, and aid governments for the deployment of control and preventative measure for the insect vector.


Locally, Nova Scotia is experiencing an increase in the number of ticks as well as tick-transmitted diseases such as Lyme disease (caused by Borrelia species of bacteria) and tickborne viruses.   Nova Scotia has become an epicenter in Canada for tickborne infections since Nova Scotia has the highest incidence of Lyme disease in all of Canada. and is recognized as an environment capable of transmitting deadly tick viruses such as Powassan virus. Tick numbers and species have increased in the province over the past decade, which is thought to possibly be due to changes in the environment and climate such as the frequencies of warmer winters. Together, the increase of tick numbers and tickborne illness in Nova Scotia has created concern. As a result of my experience with emerging vectorborne viruses, the study of insect-transmitted pathogens is one of my areas of research at Dalhousie and IWK, allowing my work to be directly connected to health problems of Nova Scotia.



Picture 3: credit WHO

Influenza, the continually re-emerging virus

Influenza is a constantly emerging and re-emerging virus. Each flu season represents the emergence of new influenza viruses, causing disease in vulnerable humans (Picture 3). Much of my work is devoted to influenza viruses and determining how the viruses change each year, how previous infection in humans affects this year’s disease, and how a person’s first influenza infection affects all other flu infections and vaccination during their life-time. The knowledge gained from my research and my work in collaboration my colleagues at Dalhousie University, IWK Health Center, and the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology (CCfV), will lead to the building of better influenza vaccines, including a universal influenza vaccine. Since there are several types, subtypes, lineages, and strains of influenza viruses and the strains are continually changing by genetic shift and drift, a Universal Vaccine for influenza would protect people from all circulating flu viruses and eliminate the need for repetitive seasonal vaccination.


Discoveries and Contributions to Science

Why do some people need to be hospitalized from an influenza virus infection while others may only have mild sniffles and cough? How does age impact influenza disease? These are some of the questions that I have investigated in my research during my career.


As mentioned above, Influenza is a well-known reoccurring virus that can infect up to 30% of children and 15% of adults every flu season. By tracking the ages of people hospitalized from flu, it is well-known that infants and the elderly have a greater susceptibility to developing severe influenza disease, but why this occurs and how we can prevent severe disease are not entirely known.  As I was investigating the immune responses of breastfeeding infants during influenza infection in an model of infant infection, I found that infected infants are able to transmit the influenza virus to their mothers’ mammary glands during feeding.  After transmission, I found the virus infected the cells of the mothers’ mammary gland and live virus was then excreted in expressed milk.  This is the FIRST time that influenza transmission from infant to mother’s mammary gland has been shown.  My finding is a step to understanding why infants may be more susceptible to severe disease and may represent a mechanism we can use to protect infants during flu season. Furthermore, since pregnant and breastfeeding women are also high-risk groups for influenza, my research gives insight into this population as well.  My discovery was reported in This Week In Virology (TWIV) and by the Naked Scientists. Knowing that influenza virus may be able to be transmitted to a mother’s mammary gland, we are able to ask questions about why this may occur and if other respiratory viruses such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) are also able to infect the breast.


Picture 4: credit CDC

Chikunguynya Virus (CHIKV) is another arbovirus transmitted by mosquitoes. It causes a human disease clinically characterized by sudden appearance of high fever, rash, headache, nausea, and severe joint pain (the defining symptom). The severe joint pain can last for months or years following infection, which highlights the importance of studying and understanding this virus’s transmission and disease. Chikungunya virus was first identified in East Africa (Tanzanian and Mozambique) and the word Chikungunya means “that which bends up”, describing the bent posture of CHIKV patients while in severe pain. Previously, CHIKV had only been found in tropical and subtropical areas of the world such as in Africa, Indian Ocean region, and Southeast Asia. The virus was only known at this time to be transmitted by the tropical mosquito Aedes aegyptii, which also transmits viruses such as yellow fever virus and dengue. But during an outbreak in the French La Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, the virus acquired a mutation in its genome allowing it to also infect and be transmitted to humans by an additional mosquito, the Asian Tiger Mosquito, Aedes albopictus (Picture 4). This mosquito has a great habitat range and lives in tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions of the world. Since the mosquito lives in temperate regions, it is able to transmit CHIKV to people living in Europe, North America, South America, and the Caribbean.  In 2007, the first outbreak in a temperate region occurred in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, which includes the city of Bologna. Over 200 cases of CHIKV infection were identified between July and September 2007 in the region. Since this virus and its disease had never before been seen in this temperate region of the world, it caused a strain on hospitals and mosquito control teams in the region as authorities worked to identify the infectious agent and contain the outbreak. My Italian colleagues at the University of Bologna and I investigated the reaction of the immune system during CHIKV infection in these patients.  From my research, I wanted to understand why the severe joint pain lasted for months and years in some patients. From my analysis of symptom severity, I found an association of proteins of the immune system specifically, CXCL9/MIG, CXCL10/IP-10 and antibody (IgG) levels.  These immune proteins (cytokines) and antibodies were seen in patients that had long-lasting severe joint pain.  By identifying the factors that may be contributing to joint pain during infection and after virus clearance, I can develop therapies to treat the painful disease.





Understanding emerging and re-emerging viruses and pathogens is important as the world changes with population growth and environmental shifts.  As humans move into previously untouched places on the globe, the frequency of virus spillover will increase.  My developed research program — which has already faced the challenges of ZIKV, CHIKV, and re-emerging influenza — will be ready to hunt the next emerging virus.

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Getting hands-on and practical with engineering: Meet Eimear O’Hara

Eimear O’Hara (@Eimear_Ohara) is a PhD Student at NUI Galway, who is taking part in Soapbox Science Galway on 7th July with the talk: “Developing new materials for cleaner, greener and cheaper power generation” 






SS: How did you get to your current position?

EO: My name is Eimear O’Hara and I am a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering at the National University of Ireland Galway. I did my undergraduate degree in the same field at NUI Galway. The mechanical engineering degree is one of the broadest courses you can choose and was closely linked with the biomedical course, as well as covering aspects of civil and computer programming. Some examples of the projects students do are shown in figures 1 – 3. The main focus is understanding how materials behave under different types of loads and the best way to design against failure. This meant that the areas you could work in are endless. After I finished my degree, I was offered the opportunity to do a research masters on characterising a new type of steel for power plants. I enjoyed this so much I applied for more funding so I could continue my research as a PhD student. (Figure 1. A bridge built out of pasta by first year engineering students. The better the design, the heavier the weight it can lift.)


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

EO: In secondary school, I took up Engineering for my Leaving Certificate and haven’t really looked back since. I loved the hands-on and practical aspects of it, while also learning why certain materials behaved the way they do. Having a great teacher also helped a lot!


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

EO: I am working on characterising a new type of steel to use in power plants that can operate at higher temperatures and loads – basically making electricity production cheaper, with less harmful emissions, and trying to make it easier to incorporate renewable energy sources. Because this is a new material, there are so many unexplored avenues so my work covers a broad range of things from testing the material at high temperature to looking at why it failed under a microscope to creating computer models of all those things. Although it can be challenging and sometimes not very clear why things are happening, it means everything I do adds to the knowledge base for this material and can help future designers improve even more. (Figure 2. First year engineering students are given a gearbox and asked to design and build a truck from household items that can carry the heaviest weight in the fastest time.)


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

EO: I have represented the mechanical engineering department at many open days and one of the most common questions I get is ‘what exactly is mechanical engineering?’ I saw this as a great opportunity to teach people of all ages and backgrounds that mechanical engineering is the broadest degree you can choose in the engineering field – ranging from aircraft design to biomedical applications even to computer coding.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the event.

EO: Exciting!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

EO: The majority of schools don’t offer metalwork or engineering as a subject. The first time some students learn about engineering as a university degree can often be late into their secondary school education, so workshops within schools may be a great way to improve people’s understanding of the subject and the many options it provides for future careers.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in science?

EO: A PhD can be very isolating and generally there are few people, if any, that will be working in the same area as you, so having a good support network within your office, or outside of it, can help get through tough times. In terms of a future career, a PhD provides you with so many options that the hardest thing can be figuring out what to do next, but you definitely won’t be short of options! (Figure 3. The Galway Energy Efficient Car (GEEC) built and designed by engineering students and raced internationally.)

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Sharing the charm of science: Meet Sezsy Yusuf

Sezsy Yusuf is a PhD researcher in School of Aerospace, Transport, and Manufacturing, Cranfield University. She moves to Cranfield, UK  with her family  to start her PhD in September 2015, with the funding from the Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education. Her project is on system identification for the scaled vehicle in which she builds a small scale model of an aircraft, puts it inside a wind tunnel, turns on wind, measures the movement, and postulates a mathematical model based on the measurement.

Well, that sums up her talk on the Soapbox Science: “Wind tunnel testing before the flight – how to put an elephant inside a fridge”.

You can catch Sezsy on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June.

Follow Sezsy on Twitter: @sezsy


SS: How did you get to your current position?

SY: After graduated from Aerospace Engineering in Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB), Indonesia, I joined the Indonesian Aerospace company. I was involved in several projects related to aircraft modification and development. Having worked there for several years, I wanted to know more. For example, I always wondered why dynamic wind tunnel testing is not a common practice in the industry? Also, I realised that there was a gap in knowledge between my country and some other parts of the world. At the same time, the Indonesian government were promoting post-graduate scholarship through their Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP). I thought it was an excellent opportunity for me to learn more about aerospace technology on the other side of the world, and then bring innovation back to my country. Since my work is related to flight dynamics, I want to do more research in this field. So I started to look for a university that has active research in the flight dynamics area. The research area and their relations with the industry are two of my top reason to choose Cranfield University. So, here I am now.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

SY: It all started when I was four years old, my father showed me a rocket and told me that rocket is way faster than aircraft, plus it can take me outside the earth. I wanted to become a rocket scientist! I think it is exciting. This is the main reason I have a major in aerospace engineering.

I’m very thankful to my supervisor for my undergraduate thesis the late Prof. Said Jenie. He was impressive; he explained his work in a simple language that made us, as students, amazed and keen to learn more. He is my role model for an aerospace scientist. He is the one that inspired me to have a career in the aerospace field. He said ‘love your research and it will pay you back’.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SY: My research is about postulating a model based on observation. I chose dynamic wind tunnel tests as a method to gain the observation data. This means, rather than experimenting with the real aircraft I’m using a scaled aircraft model. Experiments using a scaled model are not as expensive or as risky as using the full-scale aircraft. In addition dynamic wind tunnel tests allow us to trial an extreme manoeuvre that would be too dangerous to perform in the full scaled piloted aircraft.

These extreme manoeuvres are vital for the robustness of the postulated mathematical model. It is fascinating to understand more about the dynamic behaviour of the aircraft, especially in situations that is uncommon for a pilot to fly.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

SY: I love the concept of sharing the knowledge with the general public, especially with the young children. Soapbox is not only a perfect opportunity to share the charm of science to the young people, but also requires me to understand the core of my work, as I need to explain it in a fun and straightforward way. Furthermore, sometimes I wonder what geologists or biologists are doing, and I think many people have the same curiosity about science and scientists. But it was not easy to meet one and started asking about their work (especially in a shopping mall), so to bring scientists to the public is an excellent way to understand what they do.

Last but not least, working in a field that is dominated by men, I think this is a rare occasion to show that women can also be rocket scientists and through this encourage more women working in the aerospace sector.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day



SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

SY: Openness. I understand that the value of transparency, openness, and reproducibility is already appreciated in science, but in practice sometimes this is not the case. In my opinion, openness will allow more innovation.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

SY: Just do it! And let me copy what my lecturer once told me ‘love your research, and it will pay you back.’

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A wanderlust for the mountains: Meet Eleni Wood

Eleni is a geologist and PhD researcher at the Open University studying how mountain ranges recycle rocks during continental collision. She’s currently investigating how a suite of rocks that were buried at more than 50 km depth beneath the Himalaya were transported rapidly (in the geological sense) back to the surface! You can normally find her peering down the microscope at the beautiful mineral textures found inside her metamorphic rocks from Bhutan, or behind the mic hosting the Fieldwork Diaries podcast.

You can see Eleni on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June where she will talk about: ‘where on Earth?!’ – how seemingly ordinary rocks can tell extraordinary stories about past Earth environments and events. She’ll reveal the top tips and tricks for playing detective and sussing out the clues to our planet’s past!


Follow Eleni on Twitter: @EleniWood



SS: How did you get to your current position?

EW: I was drawn to Earth Sciences not only due to a wanderlust for the mountains, but it also combined my interests in understanding of the natural world with puzzles and problem solving. When I started my masters course I didn’t give too much thought to the opportunities it could open up to me. I was busy enjoying undergraduate life, in particular the amazing fieldwork opportunities that brought the broad course material to life and provided us with many a tale to recount at our midweek pub trips.

The summer before my final year opened my eyes to possible options to carry on working in such a diverse field; I undertook an internship in the geosciences industry and also spent 3 weeks in the NW Highlands of Scotland carrying out fieldwork for my masters research project. I was hooked by the research bug and the thrill of being the first person to set eyes on the secrets hidden inside an individual rock. Fast forward past finishing a degree, a few interviews, a couple of trips to the Himalaya and a lot of time spent in the lab and I’m now in my final year of my PhD at the Open University studying the inner-workings of the Himalayan crust. I’m thrilled to have not only visited my dream destination, but to also have worked there.



SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

EW: Growing up surrounded by the mountains in the Lake District (albeit smaller mountains than the Himalaya) definitely made its mark. I loved being in the outdoors. And, even though my childhood ambition was to be an author, I think I was always subconsciously heading towards science and in particular geosciences. My dinosaur collection was my pride and joy, my most memorable birthday was a surprise trip to the Natural History Museum in London and my favourite subject at school was geography (since there was no geology sadly!).

Later on, it was the pioneering stories of discovery, big and small, helping develop our understanding of how our planet works, that inspired me to follow this career. The fact that fieldwork, labwork, chemistry and physics allows us to unravel billions of years of geological history and can help us answer questions like ‘why do volcanoes explode?’ makes geoscience a really exciting field to be in. I love the idea of, no matter what the scale of the finding is, you’re always able to discover something new.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

EW: The fact that the teeny tiny minerals within rocks not only look beautiful down the microscope, but they can also reveal the secrets of millions of years of geological evolution. It still blows my mind a little bit that we can tell the age of a mountain range by analysing grains that are smaller than the thickness of a human hair.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

EW: I think Soapbox Science is genuinely genius. In my experience, you have to work quite hard or be in the right place at the right time to share your research with people outside of the echo chamber of the scientific community. While its lovely and worthwhile to talking to people with shared interests, I believe that if we want to truly widen interest and participation we have to cast the net wider. Setting up in Milton Keynes shopping centre, hopefully surprising some passers-by and answering questions from curious shoppers is a great way to do this.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

EW: Fun!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

EW: We need to fix academia’s close relationship with stress and burn out. From personal and anecdotal experience, academia can be a minefield for mental health. I’ve such admiration for the people that have shared their stories and spoken out on these issues. As a community, we need to finding a way to break the pattern.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

EW: Since I’m currently in this position myself, I think a reminder that many people have walked this path before you. There will be good days and some not so good days. Celebrate the small victories. Support your peers and don’t be afraid to seek their help. Most of all be proud of your work, you own it and your science is awesome!




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