Last week we brought you news that the FameLab London final had been won by Imperial virologist Lucy Thorne. Today we’re delighted to bring you an interview with Lucy ahead of her appearance in the National final in the spring.
Hello, Lucy, welcome to Nature Network London! Firstly, congratulations on winning the FameLab London heats! Tell us a bit about what you presented and why you picked it.
My final presentation was about how RNA viruses are incredibly good at mutating, which can really give them the upper hand in the face of selective pressures like our immune system and anti-viral drugs. I tried to illustrate this with the emergence of drug-resistant swine flu during the pandemic last year as I hoped it was an example that everyone would remember or may have even experienced- although I might have stretched that a bit when I began by asking the audience to imagine they were a swine flu virus being attacked by a drug!
How did you become interested in communication and have you ever done anything like this before?
I really enjoy trying to get people interested in science and I’ve done university outreach work in the past so I volunteered this year as a demonstrator for the Society of General Microbiology at the Cheltenham Science Festival. It was a great day and made me realise how much I enjoy it but Famelab is the first time I’ve done any competitive science communication and on such a large public scale so it was a bit nerve-wracking!
Your style obviously struck a chord with the judges. What do you think is important when communicating science to the public?
I think it’s firstly really important to somehow get people to want to listen and not to switch off when the science bit comes in! It needs to be entertaining and I also tried to relate it to experiences the audience may have had to get their attention and keep them interested. Secondly, I think it’s really important to explain it as clearly as possible without using jargon- when you’re working in detail on a subject every day it’s easy to forget which scientific words are commonly used and which ones may need explaining.
As part of your victory, you will be going on a weekend course with some science communication experts to hone your skills. What are you hoping to get out of that weekend?
Before the heats we had a short master class with one of the experts who gave us some brilliant tips on how to compose and deliver a good talk, make an impact and not overwhelm your audience- so hopefully lots more of the same! We’re really lucky to have the expert advice and the chance to practice with them so I hope to come out of it a confident public speaker. From what I hear from previous contestants it’s a great weekend!
Back to the day job for a minute: tell us about your research and areas of interest.
My PhD is on noroviruses, which are some of the RNA viruses that we think are incredibly good at mutating. We know that the norovirus RNA polymerase, the enzyme that is responsible for producing new copies of the viral genome, has a high mutation rate and must generate a diverse mix (or population) of viruses during replication. For other RNA viruses, such as hepatitis C virus, existing as a diverse population has many benefits, it enables them to evolve, to escape host immune responses and cause persistent infections and it can also determine the virulence and the extent of disease a virus can cause. I’m interested in the importance of this high mutation rate in norovirus infections because there is recent data to suggest that the noroviruses that have caused the majority of infections since 2002, called GII.4 noroviruses, may mutate faster than other noroviruses. We are using the mouse norovirus polymerase to learn more about the regions of the protein that determine the high mutation rate, so that we might be able to generate a virus with a RNA polymerase that has a reduced error rate i.e. it makes mistakes less often. This would enable us to determine how important having a high mutation rate is to the success of both acute and persistent norovirus infections in the host and the benefits it brings. In theory, this virus may be able to vaccinate animals against infection proving a new method of generating norovirus vaccines.
You’re in your final year of your PhD now: do you have a plan for the future? Do you hope to stay in academia or would you like to do this sort of thing full time?
Yes I’m definitely enjoying the research and I hope to stay in academia but I’d love to be able to do some science communication events alongside.
Sci-comm seems to be on a high at the moment, with everyone talking about Frozen Planet and wanting to live with penguins. Looking into the future, do you have a dream presenting gig?
I love travelling and exploring new places so to be able to combine it with science in something like Frozen Planet would be incredible!
Thank you very much for talking to us, Lucy, and good luck at the UK final!
Lucy Thorne will be competing in the FameLab final alongside regional winners from across the UK in March 2012. The competition will be held at the Royal Institution and ticket details will be available from FameLab in the New Year