Updated: May 22
Valwynne’s enthusiasm is infectious. She is passionate about her work and knows an incredible amount about her chosen topic. We met up with Valwynne before her time in the lab, to hear about her journey to becoming a researcher.
What are you currently doing?
My research looks at similarities between Mycobacterium tuberculosis (which causes tuberculosis (TB) in humans) and Mycobacterium bovis (in cows) and the genes they need for survival. By trying to tease out what the essential genes are and what they actually do, we can find new targets for drugs for both humans and cows. I use a new technology called CRISPR to slowly see what the genes do without killing the bacteria. (There is the potential that Valwynne could be the world expert on the gene she is researching!)
How did you get into research?
After school I did a degree in Biomedical Science at Keele University in Staffordshire, which was quiet in comparison to where I grew up in South London. After graduation I worked in clinical trials for Quintiles, Quest Diagnostics and GlaxoSmithKline looking at drugs and vaccines for infectious diseases. During my time there I got interested in tropical diseases, so I went on to study for a master’s in Molecular Biology of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It was during my project that I first I worked on a bacterium called Mycobacterium smegmatis which is a model for both the human and bovine form of tuberculosis.
Was this always something you wanted to do?
Science was always the dream, but I wasn’t specifically sure which science. I don’t think I knew exactly what I wanted to do at each point, I just knew what I liked and what I enjoyed and focussed on that and that’s got me to here. It is potentially something that you will be doing forever so you might as well enjoy it. Things are never really what you think they are until you do them.
What advice you would give your 16-year-old self?
Probably not to stress about all the little things or worry about exactly what you should or shouldn’t be doing academically. Just enjoy it, try and reach your potential and not focus on everyone else around you and what they’re doing. Focus on you, cause your best may not be what their best is and that’s fine.
"It is potentially something that you will be doing forever so you might as well enjoy it."
What is the best thing about the work you are doing/best thing you’ve done so far?
What I enjoy more than anything else is the detective work because you have a theory and you need to piece the information together using all these different techniques and different tools. I also enjoy the end result, you never know what you will see. Even though there are hurdles and things go wrong and even if it’s not that big in the grand scheme of things, its still another step towards that huge goal.
"What I enjoy more than anything else is the detective work. You have a theory and you need to piece the information together using all these different techniques and different tools."
Why do you think your work is important?
Both human and animal aspects of TB are so important and so interlinked. TB still kills 1.7 million people a year and even more people are infected every year, it’s insane. The majority of current research is in human TB especially as it is linked to HIV. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people have TB in the world but only 5% of those cases actually becomes active TB which causes clinical signs. I think looking at the bovine aspect of TB is just as important as bovine TB can actually infect humans and is harder to cure. They are so similar genetically but there are differences we still don’t understand so focussing on both of them together is quite important.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
I’m an early riser, I’m usually up at 5am sometimes even slightly earlier. I don’t get up straight away though, I lie in bed and start planning my experiments and what I need to do in my head. Most people see lab work as you go in and do all these cool experiments and put all these coloured liquids into tubes, but there’s also lots of planning behind it all and you need to read up to make all these protocols. So we spend a lot of our time doing research on our computers and bioinformatics work (analysing and interpreting biological data).
Then I’ll go into the lab. TB is highly infectious and can kill so we work in a biosafety level 3 lab so the organism is contained. We double glove, wear special lab coats and shoes, all the air is sucked out of the room and filtered. You can’t be in the lab for too long cause it’s at negative pressure so you get dehydrated. We try to analyse our results as we get them, so most afternoons I’ll be back on the computer inputting my results and using them to inform my next steps. I aim to be out by half 5 because you have to have a work life balance, I would rather come in early and have a set time when I can go home and tune out by doing something else. I like to exercise, especially running cause it helps me think about other things apart from science. I’m also into films. I try to be in bed by at least half 10.
What one thing can a student hoping to go into biological research do today to get started?
Work experience was the key for me. Its not just important to get the experience so you can then get into the university or the jobs you want, but also for yourself. Its good to go try and see if it will work for you and if you’ll like it cause that’s the key bit. I remember I sent emails and emails, you have to be brave, just send those emails, find those people and most of them might not get back to you but you only need one person. I sent so many emails and only a few people got back to me but I got to go to their lab. Go for a week even for a few days, watch them, be part of it.
"I remember I sent emails and emails, you have to be brave, just send those emails, find those people and most of them might not get back to you but you only need one person."
From researching online I knew I was interested in the Medical Research Council and National Institute for Medical Research at the Francis Crick cause they did a lot of infectious disease work. So I just sent emails to all the different groups I thought were interesting and just said “I really want to do this I’m really interested in this work and I just want to see what its like”. You shouldn’t wait and see what else is out there to apply for. I didn’t apply to any schemes that they had, I just sent emails and was able to get lots of research experience. These are normal people and they want to help, they want to get people into the work, they want to show people what they are interested in and if you ask supervisors if you can come and shadow them, they are happy to get it done.
"These are normal people and they want to help … they want to show people what they are interested in."
Written by: Stephanie Stapleton
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More about TB
https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tuberculosis (World Health Organisation)