In April at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference 2018, Professor Geoffrey Smith from the University of Cambridge was awarded the Marjory Stephenson Prize. He gave his talk on ‘Vaccinia Virus: a portrait of a poxvirus’. In this post, Alison Sinclair gives us an overview of the lecture, which you can watch below.
The impact of viruses shapes history – but it is scientists who decipher how they achieve this and how the effects of viruses can be combatted. Professor Geoffrey Smith started his illuminating and entertaining presentation ‘Vaccinia virus: A portrait of a poxvirus’ by introducing us to the career of Marjory Stephenson – a pioneer female scientist of the 20th Century who excelled in a male-dominated arena.
Professor Smith illustrated the impact that Variola Major and Variola Minor – the viruses that cause smallpox – had on global politics by showing how the governance of the UK was shaped over several centuries through the deadly impact of their infection on the royal families of Scotland and England, and how in the 1500’s, these viruses and others crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the European Conquistadors and wreaked devastation on immune-naïve native American populations.
The virus used as the vaccine to eradicate smallpox – Vaccinia Virus – was the focus of the main body of the lecture. Professor Smith started with the development of vaccination against smallpox, a delivery that is worthy of a place in every undergraduate microbiology course. Professor Smith then highlighted a few areas from his life-time research investigating this virus. This included a story, illustrated by a captivating film, that showed how the virus is pushed far from the cell that it replicates in. The take-home messages that Professor Smith made were that where vaccines are available we must use them and where there are none we must develop them, and he reverently rephrased Dr Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech to inspire us to do that.