We recently had a chat with Dr Sonali Kochhar M.D, a Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle and the Medical Director of Global Healthcare Consulting. Sonali is a leading vaccine researcher, and a key member of Group B Strep Support’s Medical Advisory Panel.
Hi Sonali, can you tell us a bit about your professional credentials and career path?
I did my M.D followed by advanced courses in Vaccinology. I am a Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle and the Medical Director of Global Healthcare Consulting. I have worked for over 20 years on Global Phase I-IV Clinical Research, Safety and Epidemiology Studies for Vaccines and Drugs conducted in USA, Europe, Africa and Asia in Adult and Pediatric populations, Infectious Diseases (Group B Strep, RSV, Influenza, HIV/AIDS, Diarrheal Diseases, Malaria, Ebola, Zika, Nipah, Lassa, MERS, Tropical Diseases), Vaccines for Pregnant Women, Introduction of New Vaccines, Pandemic Preparedness, Preparedness for Clinical Research and Safety studies for Epidemics, Research Ethics for Vaccines in Epidemics, Translating research into programs by Healthcare Systems Strengthening for Immunization and Maternal and Child Health programs and HIV/AIDs Prevention, and Treatment.
I have been fortunate to co-author internationally accepted Vaccine Safety Research Standards, Guidelines and Risk Assessment. I have worked with wonderful teams on the development of 25 novel Maternal and Neonatal Case Definitions (including for maternal death, neonatal death, stillbirth, preterm birth, neonatal infections, and neonatal encephalopathy, useful for GBS infection) and guidelines for vaccines in pregnant women clinical trials and studies. The definitions and guidelines are being utilized in clinical research, safety and epidemiological studies and adverse event surveillance for Vaccines and Maternal and Child Health Research globally.
I have led strategies for Regulatory, Safety, Ethics, Policy and Communication for Vaccines in high and low resource countries.
Why did you decide to focus on group B Strep?
In my work across both developed and developing countries, I have seen up-close how tragic maternal and neonatal infections and deaths can be for the whole family, including emotionally and financially. Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is a major, yet preventable, cause of maternal and infant illness and death globally. The GBS burden is even worse in developing countries where there is no routine screening in pregnancy or antibiotic use in pregnant women to prevent newborn GBS disease or access to healthcare services. An effective GBS vaccine would significantly reduce disease in pregnant women, fetus and infants. This is what inspired me to work on GBS.
What first sparked your interest in science, and then in paediatrics?
The interest in science probably arose at a young age from seeing my grandparents (who I was really close to) who were well know specialist doctors and who treated poor patients for free till the end. Having a family who was passionate about explaining how things worked and wonderful science teachers who made the subjects really interesting, contributed tremendously.
I worked in one of the largest pediatric hospitals in Asia while studying medicine and saw small babies dying from diseases like Rotavirus (which would not have happened in developed countries as there were vaccines available there). That is what prompted me to work towards developing safe and effective vaccines which would be affordable and accessible to the populations that needed them.
How would you explain your work to a non-scientist?
I work in Asia, Africa, Europe and the US to help to develop new vaccines for infectious diseases which are safe and effective in protecting children and adults. I also work to ensure the vaccines developed reach the people who require them, and help in health systems strengthening, especially in developing countries.
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?
It would be wonderful to help contribute in a small way towards the development of a safe and effective Group B Strep vaccine and prevent the terrible burden of disease in babies (including sepsis, pneumonia, and meningitis) and maternal deaths. A universal pregnancy screening program would be a dream (especially in many low and middle income countries where I work).
What motivates you, and do you have a favourite quote or saying that keeps you going?
The quote which motivates me is “To whom much is given, much will be required”. I have seen this over three generations of my family (which have included physicians and gynecologists), who have volunteered their time for charitable causes and to help those in need. From childhood, we were brought up to believe that we have been lucky to receive a good education and the support of a loving family and friends and need to give back to society.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change in the world?
I would want to wipe out global warming (and the significant harm we humans are doing to the environment) and global health inequalities (having seen up close the harm they cause to individuals, families and communities).
Do you have a favourite success story in your work?
One of the incidents that stand out is what happened really early in my career. We successfully conducted the first AIDS vaccine trials in India (this involved literally setting up things from scratch- including the clinics, laboratories and data management centres, research teams, helping determine the approval pathway and standard of care guidelines and successfully conducting the trials). We were told these clinical trials would not be possible. It convinced me that with a great team, patience, persistence and understanding and factoring in peoples limitations, it is possible to achieve a lot. I have seen this repeatedly since then.
What do you do when you’re not doing ‘science’?
A few years ago, I returned to painting (in both oils and acrylics) and am really glad I did so. Traveling is a passion and immersing myself in the local culture, food, music and art is a pleasure. The garden and the squirrels and birds I wake up to are a blessing.
Lastly, any advice for budding scientists, who might want to follow your career path?
Follow your heart and work on what really interests you- as it will help with the long nights and frequent deadlines, be kind (as people often carry heavy burdens), know when to speak up (as not speaking up about an injustice is as bad as perpetuating it) and do your very best (that is what is in ones hands). There is life outside work. A sense of humor and a strong support structure are invaluable!!