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Ten-minute chat
  1. Joe Brownlie

Abstract

Joe Brownlie is Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Pathology at the Royal Veterinary College and head of two active research groups, one on bovine viral diarrhoea virus and the other on canine infectious coronavirus disease. He developed the first BVDV vaccine that gave fetal protection.

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What got you interested in pathology/BVDV?

I didn't start my career thinking that I would do either pathology or viral disease research. In fact, I was just relieved to qualify. I wanted to complete a year or so in mixed practice and then return to take a PhD in biochemistry. I thought this was where the exciting science was but, during the course of this study, I realised that I wanted to do immunology. I obtained a Royal Society fellowship to work in Australia, where I studied recirculating lymphocytes in sheep and the cannulation of afferent and efferent lymphatic ducts of every kind – even fetal lymphatics. This experience of working in the medical school in Australia was a ‘career-changing experience’.

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Arriving at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH), Compton, I was keen to put my new found skills and knowledge to best effect. I wanted a veterinary disease that had an immunological question to answer and I chose bovine viral diarrhoea virus (BVDV) infection, but this was refused by the director as not being an important virus or important endemic disease. My persistence, like the virus itself, gradually won through. Joined by two IAH colleagues, we proposed and proved the aetiology of mucosal disease in 1983/4.

So then I became interested in pathogenesis and, because of this, studied virology and pathology. Our interests moved on to fetal infections with BVD, and that meant I needed to train in embryo transfer and embryological techniques. At the same time, we moved into the molecular mechanisms of viral mutation between (and within) BVD biotypes and this required a deeper knowledge of molecular virology. Since then we have discovered new viruses in cattle and dogs, and had some fun along the way. I think we have supported about 30 PhD students during this time along with many student projects.

How did you get to where you are today?

The truth is I didn't really know where I was going except I was truly fascinated by the science of disease, particularly veterinary diseases. What has been liberating has been not only having a research career but one that has not been restricted to a single discipline. During some 40 years in research, I have picked up skills in immunology, pathology, etc, that permitted us to answer complex questions of pathogenesis.

Veterinary education gives us a broad vision and the confidence to direct multi-disciplinary research.

What do you like about your job?

The challenge of solving problems, working with fine colleagues and occasionally having some impact or influence on policy both at home and overseas. I have a strong commitment to a One Health agenda, particularly as it affects Africa.

What do you not like?

The precariousness of supporting young scientists – it is quite desperate to fail to find funding for committed, clever and wonderfully talented veterinary researchers. There is no long-term career; after one or two temporary three-year postdoctoral positions, many end up unemployed, disillusioned with the scientific administration – it is little wonder we have such a problem finding experienced academics for our veterinary schools.

Why is your job important?

Anyone privileged to be in academia has the responsibility to ask the unasked questions, to speak out on issues of national importance and to propose potential solutions. My present concern is ‘Who owns disease?’ – unfortunately I am failing to find an answer.

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?

Start by being a specialist in one small area and then expand your expertise. Don't start by becoming a generalist – you need to be a an inch wide and a mile deep rather than the other way round. Claim a small part of science as your own, thereby adding to the overall knowledge. Possibly the best advice is to work with outstanding mentors in your early career – forget about salaries as far as you can.

What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Do the work first – ask permission after!

What was your proudest moment?

That's just too difficult to answer. I have had a number of moments that have given me huge pleasure. I am proud to be an active member of our profession, to be in the company of clever young researchers, and have the opportunity to speak with and to many audiences.

… and your most embarrassing?

While working at Compton, IAH, I had to enter the high security unit with my male PhD student. Before entry to the unit, you needed to pick up a watertight box, collect into it your protective clothing, strip, shower and go through to ‘the other side’. On this occasion on reaching ‘the other side’, I opened my box only to discover it contained frilly ladies underwear. I wasn't going to return through the showers so, with a serious look, I told my student I always wore them. I possibly wish I had paid more attention before entering the shower that morning!

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