Society member Dr Marie Anne Chattaway works as a Clinical Scientific Lead for Public Health England (PHE), based in London, UK. We spoke to Marie about her career, her work for PHE and how working abroad can expand your scientific horizons.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’ve recently started in a new position in the Gastrointestinal Bacterial Reference Unit (GBRU) at PHE and provide leadership and expertise in managing the delivery of reference services across GBRU and providing expert advice. When there’s an outbreak of a bacterial foodborne pathogen – Verocytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC) or Shigella for example – my job is to help with outbreak investigation, identifying and typing the strains involved. Although I’ve moved into a more managerial role now, it’s all hands on deck with the laboratory work when there’s an emergency outbreak. I am also heavily involved with the implementation of Whole Genome Sequencing in GBRU as a reference service and the restructuring of our department following on from the change in technology.
What does the GBRU do?
GBRU is the National Reference Laboratory for a range of gastrointestinal pathogens including Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, VTEC and Listeria. The unit works at local, regional, national and international levels to reduce the impact of food, water and environmentally-borne illnesses on people’s health. For example, when a patient with a gastrointestinal infection provides a sample, a hospital laboratory usually carries out the primary diagnostic work to isolate the causative pathogen. If this is a bacterium, the isolate will be sent to us for identity confirmation and for more detailed characterisation or typing to be carried out, typically using molecular methods and increasingly whole genome sequencing. These detailed results are sent back to the hospital but are also used for national surveillance in order to monitor gastrointestinal infectious disease trends throughout the country.
Another important use of the typing information is for outbreak detection and for tracing the source of infection, so that control and preventative measures can be taken. During the 2011 outbreak of O104:H4 enteroaggregative VTEC in Germany, several people returned to the UK and developed gastroenteritis symptoms. Due to the severity of the illness, it was really important to know what infection people had to ensure they received the correct treatment, and also to get a food history from them to try and identify the source of infection. Knowing the exact cause of the infection and identifying specific virulence characteristics was invaluable to clinicians treating patients, as microbes respond to treatments in different ways. For instance, treating some infections, such as an E. coli O104 infection, with antibiotics can actually be detrimental and lead to further disease complications.
How did you get involved with microbiology?
It was really down to a throwaway comment from my A-level Biology teacher, who said that there was a real need for more microbiologists – that’s what got me looking into the subject. I did a Higher National Diploma in Microbiology, then a degree, during which time I spent a year working at PHE. A job came up here, so I finished my studies part-time, before undertaking a Master’s degree then a PhD.
How has the Society helped you in your career?
I have been a member for over 14 years and the Society has been fundamental in supporting me financially to attend its conferences. Attending Society conferences fuelled my passion for microbiological research and influenced my decision to do a PhD. During my PhD, I was awarded a President’s Fund Grant from the Society to travel to Haverford College, USA, to work with Professor Iruka Okeke, which allowed me to learn techniques that weren’t readily accessible in the UK at the time. While I was there, I went to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Conference and attended a talk about the cholera outbreak that followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I was inspired by this talk and wanted to use my scientific skills to help people living in low- and middle-income countries. It was at this time that I began volunteering for the Journal of Infection in Developing Countries, which mentors scientists from low-income countries to publish valuable scientific research.
In 2012, there was another cholera outbreak, this time in Sierra Leone, which affected the whole country. Before I’d gone to the US, I’d never left home for an extended period of time, but my trip there gave me the confidence to volunteer to go to Sierra Leone for a month, to help establish a bacterial enteric diagnostic and reference laboratory. On my return, I was successful in obtaining grants from PHE that helped fund a two year programme of sending microbiologists to Sierra Leone to further develop the laboratory.
I think that people might not realise how travelling to other countries can build your confidence as a scientist. Going abroad and going to conferences opens doors, inspires and gives you the opportunity to see what else is going on in microbiology.