“I came over here in 2001 to do a post-doc and to expand my horizons, and I’m still here,” says Teresa (Tess) Lambe, a senior scientist, recently appointed to associate professor level, at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute. Partly funded through the Oxford BRC’s Vaccines for Emerging and Endemic Diseases Theme, the main focus of her research is developing vaccines for emerging and outbreak pathogens.
Tess, came to direct translational work a little later than some of her peers, as she spent so much time in pre-clinical work.
Her PhD was in cell biology, but “there was absolutely no translatability”, so she used her first post-doctorate, in the field of autoimmunity, to build up her skills. It was working in this area, specifically on “an interesting signalling moiety, which helps immune memory formation after vaccination or after exposure to antigens” that got her interested in vaccination.
“I had to weigh up whether I wanted to stay in basic research, which is very fundamental and important, or if my love was more for translational and seeing an impact in human health. Translational won.”
“Translational research is what really interests me”Tess Lambe
Now, working with Prof Sarah Gilbert’s group at the Jenner, she is able to do research that has real clinical benefits for patients.
“I came to the Jenner as a pre-clinical scientist, but with the mind set of ‘I’m going to move into translational research’, because that’s what really interested me. I was a basic scientist, I learnt a lot of techniques, but ultimately got frustrated at seeing all these interesting revelations happening in pre-clinical models that didn’t impact on public health or health benefits for patients, so the Jenner is a really good place to come if you want to see a rapid translation from pre-clinical to clinical.”
Initially, Tess helped to establish the pre-clinical influenza vaccine team and continued to learn about the clinical trials, helping out during the 2009 influenza epidemic, and this, she says, has “spurred my interest in a lot of emerging and outbreak pathogens.”
Among the eye-catching research Tess has done was a real-time assay looking at the immune response to the Ebola virus post-vaccination. Since then, she has continued to work on vaccines for Ebola, as well as helping to develop other kinds of virus, including, for example, Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever, Lassa fever, Nipah virus and MERS. “I span a lot of viruses,” she says.
She describes herself as early to mid-level researcher who is “getting my little team together and trying to build from there”.
To get an associate professorship, Tess needed to display a level of independence: that she was driving research, coming up with the solutions and seeking funds to carry it out.
Having looked up to Jenner Institute professors such as Sarah Gilbert and Oxford BRC Director Helen McShane, both of whom, Tess says, have been “influential in my career progression”, she is now acting as an approachable and knowledgeable mentor for students coming into the lab.
“In the Jenner, we’ve benefited from having a number of female mentors we can look up to and aspire to. I’ve been lucky that I have strong, very senior role models to look to.”
In the world of deadly pathogens, the funding from the Oxford BRC has been important in testing vaccines quickly. While funding can be obtained from elsewhere (for example, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust or the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), it can take up to nine months to secure the money.
“The BRC funds allow us within the Jenner to look at the immune responses towards these outbreak pathogens in clinical trials and to facilitate the translational aspect of vaccine development. If there were a new outbreak of an Ebola virus strain tomorrow, we could easily order reagents and test the immune response that we’ve already vaccinated against to give us an indication as to whether that vaccine would be beneficial against this new variant.”
The BRC also funds crucial posts within the Jenner, who provide a point of contact for translational research and helping researchers to design their trials.
“So the BRC funding is really helpful in allowing us to rapidly respond to key translational questions and to facilitate that type of research.”
Looking to the future, Tess says: “I want to continue to grow my team, I want to extend those studies and I want to stay with emerging and outbreak pathogens, within the Jenner and within translational research, and the BRC funding will hopefully continue to facilitate that.”
Tess has two school-age children, and even with a supportive partner, has found it difficult working in research, but academia is a relatively flexible setting.
“The Jenner has been friendly and supportive when it comes to flexible working; I’ve changed my hours repeatedly, working bank holidays to make up time etc. There were no weird working arrangement that didn’t work for Sarah,” Tess explains.
“You are expected to deliver and it is hard. Academia is not a nine-to-five. I frequently work weekends and pretty much every night, but I can work like that because it’s what I choose to do, it’s what I enjoy.”
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