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Lynda Coughlan Interview
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Lynda Coughlan

Describe the project you’ll be conducting with your GWIS Fellowship funds. What do you hope to discover through this research, and how will the GWIS Fellowship help make this research happen?

The work I will be conducting with my GWIS Nell Mondy and Monique Braude Fellowship funding will be to develop improved vaccines for influenza. I will do this by engineering non-replicating adenoviral vectors as vaccine delivery vehicles which produce fragments of the influenza virus following vaccination. To improve the immune recognition of these influenza fragments, my work aims to target them to host exosomes in vivo.

Exosomes are nano-sized extracellular vesicles released by almost all living cells, which play important roles in cell:cell communication. They have also been shown to regulate immune responses, by transferring viral proteins and immune complexes (MHC:peptide) between cells. As a result, I became excited at the possibility of exploiting them to improve immune responses to vaccination. I plan to engineer my adenoviral vaccines so that when they produce the influenza vaccine fragments (called antigens), these get stuck to the outside of exosomes that are being released from cells. I hope that exosomes displaying fragments of the influenza virus on their surface will get taken up and processed by local immune cells, resulting in increased immune responses following vaccination.

Current influenza virus vaccines are currently hindered by several issues. These include the strain-specific immune responses elicited which fail to protect against emerging pandemic strains, the necessity to predict in advance which strains will be circulating in the next influenza season and they are reliant on eggs for vaccine manufacture. Adenoviral vectored vaccines represent an attractive alternative delivery platform: they are easily customized, rapidly scalable for clinical-grade manufacture, they elicit robust immune responses and have been shown to be safe in humans. Therefore, investing in developing adenoviral vectors as universal influenza vaccines could complement pandemic preparedness strategies. Although I am currently working on influenza, if the exosome-display approach works, it could be applied to generating vaccines for other pathogens and could have a real impact on the infectious disease vaccine field.

The funds provided by this GWIS fellowship will allow me to generate preliminary data to support my research ideas. My project is distinct from other ongoing work in my laboratory, so this money will allow me to buy in reagents specific to my project and not covered by general consumables. Also, as I am an early-career researcher new to the USA, gaining US funding will really boost my CV and allow me to gain more research independence.

 

 

What’s the coolest thing about your research and/or favorite part of your job?


The coolest thing about my job is that I get to work with incredibly interesting people from all over the world. Scientists are naturally curious people, but having diverse backgrounds and alternative perspectives help us to approach problems and challenges in different ways. The people around me push me to be a better scientist, challenge me and ensure that I learn new things every day.

I work with viruses, which I find so fascinating. They are tiny microscopic particles which express only a small handful of genes, yet are responsible for massive global disease outbreaks in humans. My work aims to make better vaccines which could prevent viral infections. What I find really interesting about viruses is that despite their tiny genomes, we still don't always fully understand how they cause disease. In addition, their capacity for ongoing evolution make it even more challenging to develop effective vaccines so there is always exciting research to be done in this field

How did you end up doing what you’re doing? What was your path to becoming a scientist?


I always wanted to be a scientist. I'm not sure what triggered my interest but I suppose I was a very curious child and my mother fed that curiosity. There was no such thing as complaining about being bored in our house growing up in Ireland (you would be told to do chores!). So, we were encouraged to read books, draw, play cards, make houses from cardboard boxes, perform plays and musicals or explore the local beach, farm or whatever was around. We weren't afraid to get dirty, climb trees, go crab fishing or collect bugs.

I was good but not naturally gifted at mathematics in school, but had a flair for languages so my teachers always encouraged that path for my future career. However, I have always had a stubborn streak and do not like being told that I cannot do something. So, I think out of spite I deliberately chose subjects in school that challenged me (maths, chemistry, physics and applied maths), just to prove those teachers wrong! Science just ignited a spark that nothing else could.

My interest in virus research was probably prompted by the media covered of the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s/1990s when I was growing up and the high profile death of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, from AIDs in 1991. I would also say that the movie Outbreak inspired me to want to grow up to be a field virologist for the CDC! So, I pursued Microbiology at university followed by a MSc in Virology. And the rest is history.

I have worked on viruses since then and although I did not end up being a field virologist, I am pretty close. A virologist and vaccine scientist working in one of the most exciting virology laboratories in the world, with Prof Peter Palese. I frequently meet old school friends back home who always comment on how I am one of the few people they know who is actually working in the career they said they wanted from the age of 8.


What do you like to do when you aren’t working on your science?

 

I love travel, seeing new places, cultures and trying new foods. Luckily I often get to travel to conferences in exotic places, so it is the perfect way to combine science with a holiday. I also love running, it keeps me fit and mentally happy. I think the best advice I have ever heard is that for a balanced life you need to have one hobby that makes you money (science), one to keep fit (running) and another which can be a creative outlet (photography).

Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for girls and young women who wish to pursue a career in science?


I would say, work hard, be determined and don't let anyone tell you that you are incapable of achieving something you want. If you really want it, you can find a way to do it. Don't give up. Science is challenging and things do not always happen as quickly or easily as you would like them to so be prepared to fail, learn from your mistakes and try again. Be persistent! The rewards of learning new things every day, having the freedom to pursue your own ideas and doing work that has the potential to change lives for the better should be the focus driving you forward.

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