15 Jan Reinventing my career during the COVID-19 pandemic
Blog by Dr Catherine Ludden, Director of Operations, COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium
I am a Sir Henry Wellcome post-doctoral Fellow who has spent the last decade immersed in post-graduate training in microbiology, molecular biology and genomics. Before COVID-19 erupted into the world, my career path was aimed towards what would be seen as the traditional academic trajectory – PhD, Junior postdoctoral fellowship, Senior Fellowship as a group leader and the future ambition of professor.
But then in March 2020, I got a phone call that changed everything.
An appreciation for micro-organisms
I always knew I wanted to be a scientist as I was, to the annoyance of my parents, a very inquisitive child who asked a lot of questions. It was at school where I became interested in biology, ecosystem diversity and how bacteria impacts the human body. However, it wasn’t until university that my love for microbiology really started to flourish. It was there that I became engrossed in the world of evolution and marvelled at the sight of micro-organisms growing in a petri dish; how the cells appeared under the microscope, the variations in shape and size, as well as the effect of different growth conditions.
Learning about how micro-organisms have the potential to evolve and cause disease in different populations led me to study the fascinating field of infectious diseases. It was here that my desire to want to make an impact in reducing the burden of diseases, particularly in this era of antimicrobial resistance, really took off.
The power of micro-organisms is now etched in our minds as the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the impact of pathogens and the fragility of human health against their might. And although it may seem that all of our attention has been diverted to tackle COVID-19, the emergence of antimicrobial resistance is an ever-present threat that is waiting in the wings to grab our full attention once again when the pandemic has subsided.
But micro-organisms also contribute to the health of the planet and the people on it.
There is ever-growing evidence to show that the bacteria we carry has the potential to shape our entire health and well-being. Bacteria are essential for the balance of our entire ecosystem, breaking down organic matter to recycle carbon and release the building blocks of life back into the environment as living matter dies. Bacteria have even been discovered that break down plastics, which could be a game changer in the face of the world plastic pollution crisis.
A settled career plan?
Pathogens are endlessly fascinating and I could have happily spent many a year dedicating myself to delving deeper and deeper into the mechanics of how they evolve and spread. This was my chosen career path. And like many others, I spent considerable time and energy in forging it.
A Batchelors degree in Medical Science led naturally on to a PhD on mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria. A post-doctoral position then led on to a successful application for a Sir Henry Wellcome post-doctoral Fellowship, which extended my knowledge and expertise in One Health genomic approaches to the spread of antimicrobial resistance.
During my fellowship, I was lucky enough to be awarded a 6 month secondment to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control where I provided scientific and technical expertise for the analysis and interpretation of European genome datasets and supported international outbreak investigations.
After such an amazing experience, my next step was to write a senior fellowship application relating to research in the field of antimicrobial resistance. But then life changed.
A change in direction
In March 2020, I joined the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium and subsequently became the Director of Operations. It was an interim role that forced me to put my Fellowship on hold.
COG-UK was set up to generate SARS-CoV-2 genomes for the benefit of public health. In the last ten months, this has rapidly grown into a consortium of many hundreds of researchers and numerous academic partners across the UK and acts to support the four National Public Health Agencies of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
NHS laboratories and mass testing facilities have worked tirelessly to quickly implement tests for diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 with rapid turnaround times, while also battling supply chain issues for reagents and staff shortages. It is at the end of this diagnostic testing process, that the work of COG-UK begins.
COG-UK is responsible for the sequencing and analysis of those samples, which helps in understanding the evolution of the different variants of SARS-CoV-2 and how those different variants have spread across the nations. With mass testing this is not a simple feat, with much consideration taken into identifying the most pressing samples required to be sequenced, including those from vulnerable populations, healthcare workers and participants in vaccine trials, all of which have direct public health implications.
The consortium has generated over 190,000 genomes so far and have developed methods and analytical tools that are used worldwide. As the SARS-CoV-2 genome acquires an increasing number of mutations over time, this allows us to distinguish lineages (groups of viruses that are very similar to each other), which can be used when investigating suspected outbreaks.
This data has been used in many hundreds of outbreak investigations. And attention is now increasingly focused on using the genome data to detect and track mutations that could result in more severe disease, reduced efficacy of vaccines or reduced accuracy of diagnostic tests.
Genome data is making important contributions to the COVID-19 response. But how has my work changed, what have I learned, and what does it mean for my future plans?
My working day
The management team of COG-UK were challenged to assemble a high performing team of experts who could rapidly deliver results to accommodate the ever-changing needs and requirements of the organisations involved in the public health response. Working in such a large consortium required the team to understand and to learn how best to build the network, implement new analysis tools and to develop the end to end workflow. Communication across this network is fundamental to achieving our common goals.
My job is to oversee the COG-UK operations, developing long-term operational strategies, coordinating public health investigations, and engaging with technical experts, collaborators and senior leaders. This involves working with NHS diagnostics labs, mass testing labs and sequencing sites across the UK to ensure acquisition and sequencing of high priority samples in real-time, thus making the data available for public health investigations.
Throughout this period, I have needed to communicate strategic vision that inspires and engages all involved while ensuring the highest standard of delivery.
Developing a diverse and hardworking team, efficient organisation of each day, sharing knowledge, learning and listening to colleagues and reviewing daily, weekly and monthly milestones has enabled me to grow as a leader.
I have drawn my inspiration from senior colleagues whom I admire for their passion, work ethic and dedication to helping others.
Into the future
Reflecting on the last 10 months, I realise that I have learnt an entire skillset that I didn’t have before. I have transitioned from being an independent researcher to now leading a team of exceptionally high performing people with diverse skillsets. I have learnt to do so by creating a dynamic environment to engage, inspire and motivate team members to help them thrive and develop skills which will advance their careers and the success of the project. I am also working as part of a consortium, which spans multiple organisations across many nations, and as such requires a high level of cooperation and in certain circumstances negotiation.
The last year or so has come with a steep learning curve; I have had an exponential increase in my understanding of logistics. I have become a leader, a negotiator and a team player. I’ve had to hit tight deadlines and mitigate risks.
For now, I am committed to COG-UK. But I am wondering, when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, what could be the next step in my career trajectory? These challenging months have been tough but rewarding and have made me question my perceptions of what I enjoy, and what I can achieve each day.
My story is far from unique. Many scientists have dropped everything to support the response to COVID-19, putting their own careers on hold and not only changing the type of work that they do, but also the lives that they lead. This inspirational behaviour makes me believe that an important proportion of the young scientific workforce will also be thinking differently about their futures.
And that may prove to be one of the enduring positive legacies of the current pandemic.
To find out more about the work of COG-UK, please visit https://www.cogconsortium.uk