Challenging science

A woman from Grange has been granted a prestigious international award for her work in developing vaccines for influenza. We find out more about Lynda Coughlan
Challenging science
Dr Lynda Coughlan and Professor Adrian Hill after receiving the BMA Award for scientific research. Lynda's most recent award is from the Graduate Women in Science (GWIS).

A CORK woman has been honoured by a global organisation that connects, inspires and supports women in science.

Dr Lynda Coughlan is the 2017 recipient of the Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) Nell Mondy and Monique Braude Fellowship. She is one of just six women chosen by GWIS in the USA/Internationally this year for the prestigious honour.

Lynda is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York city. Her research focuses on developing improved vaccines for influenza.

Speaking to GWIS, Lynda explained what she does: “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.”

Lynda, from Grange is a former pupil of Douglas NS and Christ the King Secondary School. She studied Microbiology at UCC, as well as a Masters of Science in Virology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

She did a PhD at Barts Cancer Institute in London from 2005 to 2009, and was also a Research Associate at The University of Glasgow from 2009 to 2012, followed by a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, from 2012 until earlier this year, when she moved to New York to work at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Speaking to GWIS following the award, Lynda said the fellowship funding will help aid her work into the area of vaccines for influenza.

“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.”

GWIS asked Lynda what was the favourite part of her job.

Lynda said: “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.”

Lynda said she always wanted to be a scientist.

Speaking to GWIS she said: “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.”

She was also encouraged at school.

“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.”

Lynda told GWIS that her interest in virus research was prompted by the media coverage of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic during the 1980s/ 1990s, when she was growing up, and the high profile death of Freddie Mercury, who died 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,” she told GWIS.

“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 eight.”

When she is not working Lynda loves to travel, taking in new places, cultures and trying new foods.

“I have heard 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).”

Lynda had advice for young girls/ 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.”

To find out more about the GWIS and for their full interview with Lynda see www.gwis.org/?coughlan

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