At the start of this Group B Strep Awareness Month, we sat down with one of the key people involved in group B Strep vaccine research, Dr Kirsty Le Doare, to learn more about the person behind the science.
Kirsty is one of the leading international researchers on group B Strep, and is working on group B Strep assay standardisation and serocorrelates of protection initiative (a complex technology which should reduce the amount of time a group B Strep vaccine takes to develop), and is part of the World Health Organisation’s task-force to defeat meningitis and develop the pathway for licensing a group B Strep vaccine.
Hi Kirsty, can you tell us a bit about your professional credentials and career path?
I am a paediatric infectious diseases consultant and professor of paediatrics at St. George’s University of London, specialising in neonatal infections and maternal vaccination to prevent them. I initially worked for Oxfam as an economist before taking graduate entry medicine. I’ve always been interested in neonatal infections, especially in low-income settings and my first job was as an academic trainee with the Institute of Child Health investigating neurodevelopment of babies born to mothers with HIV infection in South Africa.
Why did you decide to focus on group B Strep?
I’ve seen first hand how devastating neonatal infections can be and while I was working as a neonatal registrar I saw many group B Strep infections in babies in the unit. I think Prof. Paul Heath was giving a lecture to the junior doctors at the time and I found it fascinating that group B Strep was such a big cause of disease but had so little international focus. So when the opportunity to work on group B Strep in The Gambia came up with Prof Beate Kampmann, I jumped at the chance to know more.
What first sparked your interest in science, and then in paediatrics?
That’s a tough one. I have always been interested in science but my school was horrified that I might want to do a science degree. It was also fairly inflexible about combining my love of languages with my love of science, so I ended up with language A levels. It was only really when I met my husband (who is a chemist, AKA a real scientist) that I thought about science again. At the time I was fed up of working as a logistician for Oxfam (setting up but not working in the hospitals I was setting up). There was an article in the Guardian about graduate entry medicine and my husband told me to stop whinging and apply. Then my tutor was an amazing paediatrician called Jonathan Round and I couldn’t think of anything I would rather do. So you could say a series of inspiring scientists are responsible.
How would you explain your work to a non-scientist?
I work in Africa and the UK to understand what bugs make babies sick and how we can help their immune systems to prevent and fight these infections through vaccines.
What would you like to achieve personally in your work on group B Strep and what changes would you like to see in 5 – 10 years’ time?
I would like to play a small part in taking the 50 years that Carol Baker has worked towards a group B Strep vaccine to fulfilment. I would hope that we would see universal screening in pregnancy as the norm and have a vaccine programme that works globally. I also want people to say of me that I did very little harm in my research.
What motivates you, and do you have a favourite quote or saying that keeps you going?
I am motivated by interesting things and new results from my team. I love it when one of my students find something interesting and they get so excited about it. I don’t have a quote that keeps me going but the Mandela quote about speaking to a person in their language is very powerful and is one of the reasons I want to have patients at the centre of my research.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
If you had a magic wand, what would you change in the world?
Health inequalities and global warming deniers.
Do you have a favourite success story in your work?
Hmm, not a success story as such but the fact that our global consortium on assay standards still includes all the original partners (including industry) and they still talk to each other (and me) is something I’m quite proud of.
What do you do when you’re not doing ‘science’?
Does that include catching up on emails? I love my garden, a good pub quiz or board game and travelling to exotic places (mostly this now involves stalking my children who are at university abroad). I also love visiting my friends around the world, so beware if you invite me to stay sometime!
Lastly, any advice for budding scientists, who might want to follow your career path?
Be humble, be flexible, find inspiring people and something that inspires you and don’t be afraid to talk to them.