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From herpetology to virology: how did that happen?
  1. Camilla Benfield

Abstract

Camilla Benfield is a lecturer in virology at the Royal Veterinary College. Here, she describes her career path so far

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TRIPS to Oz to see the maternal family in my formative years instilled a love of snakes. I started out with garter snakes – Victoria and Albert – at the age of 10: snake handling sessions gave a slightly different flavour to run-of-the-mill children's parties. For the next two decades the serpentine succession included Columbus, Medusa and finally Ralph, who passed away three years ago. A fascination with creatures and love of the natural world was the starting point for my career trajectory. I recall a brief conceptual dalliance with the idea of being a National Geographic reporter, and for thoroughness and objectivity's sake I did a week's ‘work experience’ in an A & E department of a London hospital at the age of 15. This propelled me with even greater determination into the veterinary profession.

Reading veterinary medicine (and Part II in zoology) at Cambridge was absolutely brilliant. I was attracted to the traditional curriculum of starting with pre-clinical science (ie, science), and building up to the beasts suited me well. I'm a firm believer that veterinary medicine is applied science (plus some artistry of course). If you are to work out what's going wrong with the complex machine that is the body (be it human, canine or serpentine), it's critical to understand its inner workings (and it's much more intellectually satisfying). Perhaps it was a clue of things to come that I wasn't champing at the bit to get into the clinical years, but when they arrived they were equally rewarding, and on graduating I chose a mixed and exotics practice in which to ply my long-awaited trade.

My CV

▪ Veterinary degree at Cambridge with a masters in zoology

▪ Mixed animal practice

▪ PhD working on molecular strategies to combat influenza virus at Cambridge

▪ Postdoctoral research on vaccinia virus

▪ Lecturer in virology at the Royal Veterinary College

I enjoyed many aspects of my 20 months in practice: the detective work of diagnosis, the completion aspect of successful surgeries or treatments, and building client rapport (not to mention the novelty of driving the practice's white van around on my calls). But to be frank, I also felt a modicum of disappointment: that money and practicalities often obstructed best practice as I saw it; that I felt more Jack of my trade than master of it; and that the Hippocratic oath came with an on-call phone and regular Saturday clinics! There was also my animal hair allergy – I was allergic to all mammals on the intradermal skin test panel I had taken aged 15, with the exception of essence of rabbit. I had always been sneezier-than-most, although this minor issue had not deterred me hitherto: we had always had cats, dogs and an assortment of smaller furries at home. However, it was tiresome that I had to enlist the ‘summer cold’ white lie to clients with some regularity, and this weighed in on the cons side.

I applied to only one PhD programme, which I saw advertised in Veterinary Record, for veterinary graduates to undertake training and research in infectious diseases at my alma mater. The studentships were funded by Defra/HEFCE via the Veterinary Training and Research Initiative, in recognition that there was a need to engage more veterinarians in research, coupled with increasing concern over the impact of infectious and emerging diseases on livestock and public health. I was attracted by the opportunity to learn new things: to gain deep expertise in a particular area, as well as to develop a working knowledge of ‘the scientific method’ in a molecular laboratory in the genetic modification era. This felt new and exciting to me. I had a pretty sketchy recollection of my weekly biochemistry practicals seven years earlier as an undergraduate; I had never really seen the ‘kit’ inside a research lab; and my only contribution to scientific discovery during my degree had been a (hugely absorbing) project on acoustic duelling among male Chorthippus brunneus, the common field grasshopper. I was also conscious that a doctorate would be a boon for a range of subsequent career options, so I didn't have to agonise at this stage about exactly which path lay ahead. Life as a postgraduate student promised ownership and self-determination in my working life, and the time to think.

The sartorial high of postgraduate research

The doctorate was not linked to a specific project at the application stage. Broadly, the topic of microbiology and infectious diseases appealed to me because it linked human, domestic and wild animal health. First, because the same fundamental molecular and epidemiological rules should apply, and secondly, because the wider impacts of ‘animal-origin’ diseases – on ecosystems, human livelihoods, ‘sustainability’, food security etc – were increasingly apparent. I was drawn to the idea that the veterinary profession could play an important role in mitigating these impacts, across the ‘divide’ of host species (a divide which really isn't so divisive). Of the microbes, I found viruses rather more dynamic and subversive than bacteria – more interesting on a molecular level – but they also seemed to occupy the more prominent spot in terms of emerging and notifiable diseases. (I was no expert then, but avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease and severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS] were some topical players that sprung to mind.)

I chose a PhD project working in a lab that researched innovative molecular strategies to combat influenza virus, at the Department of Veterinary Medicine. This had not in fact been on the project list circulated to interviewees, but a little investigation on my part indicated that this group seemed to fit the bill in terms of the molecular magic I was hoping to learn and the clear goal of applying the magic – in this case to enhance the resistance of poultry to influenza virus.

I worked on genes involved in the innate immune response to influenza virus in chickens: at least that was our premise. Several years into the PhD, I concluded that, although the human and mouse versions of the same genes are notorious for their potent anti-influenza effects, the chicken counterpart lacked such antiviral ability. My so-called ‘negative results’ were, axiomatically, less positive than hoped. However, there was still considerable satisfaction in convincing myself, my supervisor and ultimately the reviewers of my manuscript. I always found it motivating to go into work to discover the results of experiments. It was novel and satisfying to learn the language of molecular biology. The PhD taught me that it's good to have your research eggs in several baskets – lines of inquiry that aren't wholly dependent on each other and that also differ in their riskiness. In my final year I switched to investigating how the antiviral human and mouse genes worked on a molecular level, and, although I did not come up with a beautiful unifying mechanism, I gained some valuable insights. One of these was that science, for the most part, is incremental.

‘The world is facing disease challenges as never before, but the corollary of that is that the veterinary profession has scope to contribute to solving these challenges’

I recall thinking towards the end of my PhD that it would be better if the input and output of scientific research had a nice positive linear correlation. Surely in most jobs, if you work hard you do well, but research seemed to be a more fickle endeavour, and this bothered me. As Einstein said: ‘If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research’ (which is at odds with the current necessity that scientists predict and road-map the impact of their future research . . . but let's not veer off-topic). I found that writing my thesis and defending it in my viva was one of the high points. The satisfaction of bringing my work together into something tangible and of getting some positive feedback definitely spurred me into considering postdoctoral research. I did entertain other career options at this stage but felt that a few postdoccing years would broaden my research experience and skills in a different environment and crystallise if academia and/or research was my desired destiny.

For my postdoc I changed cities (from Cambridge to London) and viruses (from influenza to vaccinia). I started a five-year postdoc at Imperial College working on how vaccinia virus evades the host immune response. I was still in the realm of molecular virology, but with a greater focus on cell signalling pathways, and now studying a virus with several hundred genes as opposed to influenza's handful, and with a very different gameplan for subverting and multiplying in host cells. I valued working in a larger research group as I found the lab environment more sociable and more dynamic, and the range of expertise meant that there was always someone a few lab bays away to ask for advice. After 18 months, my boss announced that he and his research funding were moving to Cambridge, and hence so were all the jobs in his lab.

Like a boomerang, I was back, this time based in the Department of Pathology, where my supervisor was the new head of department. I thought that being in Cambridge without a college affiliation would be less holistic (or at least less bibulous) existence, and hence I secured a research associate position at Trinity Hall. After a year of the Cambridge-based postdoc I saw an advertisement for a lectureship in virology at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), an opportunity to leverage my veterinary background in establishing an independent research position. I knew I would enjoy the teaching component from having supervised Cambridge undergrads, and I liked the idea of having a client again (in this case a student not an animal owner).

I got the lectureship and have now been at the RVC for four years. The teaching component (nominally 40 per cent of my time) is much more diverse than I had imagined, partly because the RVC runs various BSc and MSc courses in addition to the BVetMed, and I am involved in the RVC's increasing teaching focus on One Health. Research occupies 60 per cent of my time, and my main research interest is comparative antiviral immunity, ie, how the host innate immune response to viruses differs among different species. (For example, some reservoir hosts tolerate virus infections that are lethal in other host species.)

It is increasingly apparent that early immune responses shape subsequent adaptive immunity, and another of my interests is the prospect of modulating innate immunity to improve vaccine-induced immunity. Several months ago, I received a scholarship for early career researchers from the UK Veterinary Vaccinology Network to attend a keystone meeting ‘Translational Vaccinology for Global Health’. As well as enjoying the ‘scientific cinema’ of diverse presentations on the most up-to-date (often unpublished) research, it's a real opportunity to grow one's network and raise your own profile. For those seeking their next academic position, I would say conferences are a great hunting ground for finding your next supervisor or lighting the fire under your next research obsession. As well as other academics, with whom you can sow the seeds of future collaborations, it's also really valuable to meet representatives from industry, grant funding bodies and NGOs. At the keystone meeting I was fortunate to engage with colleagues working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the USA's National Institutes of Health Grants Team as well as a biotech company based right next to the RVC campus in the London Bioscience Innovation Centre, all of whom gave me insights into the ‘research ecosystem’ and are valuable contacts.

I have found that the academic research ecosystem is in rather complex and political. The ‘actual science’, which attracted me along the academic track in the first place, can seem like a small central kernel. It can feel frustrating that I now have less time for research than ever before, eroded by the other administrative and pedagogical calls on my time. However, the lectureship has opened up many unforeseen opportunities – not least a mission to Kazakhstan as a Food and Agriculture Organization consultant, and it is certainly rewarding to help train the next generation of the veterinary profession.

The world is facing disease challenges as never before, but the corollary of that is that the veterinary profession has scope – as never before – to contribute to solving these challenges alongside colleagues from human, wildlife and ecosystem health, whether it be in the field, lab or lecture theatre.

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