Describe your job at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
I’m a Senior Scientist and I hold a Canada Research Chair in Public Health Genomics, which means that I use the latest DNA sequencing technology to answer public health questions. By sequencing the genomes of the pathogens causing an outbreak, we can find tiny molecular clues that help us uncover how a person became infected and in many cases, we can reconstruct an outbreak completely – mapping out how the outbreak began and how each and every case became infected. This is incredibly helpful information when we’re trying to solve an outbreak in real-time, and it also helps us take a big picture look at how particular diseases are moving around our province and our world. It’s this sort of information that will help us prevent future outbreaks.
What inspired you to take up a career in public health?
Embarassingly, I saw the Dustin Hoffman movie “Outbreak” when I was a teenager and thought that looked pretty cool. I’d found biology and medicine interesting since I was a small kiddo, and seeing the infectious disease side of things and all the excitement that went along with a job in public health drew me in. I read every disease book I could - things like "The Hot Zone" and "The Coming Plague” and then went off to university to study a combination of microbes and genetics.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Our team was the first group ever to sequence a bunch of bacterial genomes to reconstruct the transmission events that explained a large outbreak of tuberculosis here in BC. It resulted in a paper in a world-leading medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine. This was pretty exciting for us, but what has been even more exciting is to see is how groups around the world have really adopted this approach (what we call “genomic epidemiology”) as a tool for their routine investigations. I don’t think we realized when the paper was published in 2011 just how much it would change public health agencies’ approaches to outbreak investigations.
What changes do you anticipate in your scientific field over the next decade?
In genomic epidemiology, the big challenge right now is making the process faster. To sequence a bacterial or viral genome, we typically have to put that bug into pure culture and grow enough of it so we can harvest the amount of DNA we need for sequencing. What would be fantastic is if we could sequence a complete bacterial or viral genome directly from an incoming specimen, like a urine sample or blood. We could turn results around in hours instead of days, and could even move this sort of analysis out of the lab and into the field, which is especially important if you’re responding to an outbreak in a setting without a lot of lab capacity.
How does your work improve patient care?
Genomics does two critical things. At the patient level, genome sequencing can get us diagnostic answers - things like "what does this patient have?", "what antibiotics might they be resistant to?” - within hours to days, instead of the weeks to months it can sometimes take with slow-growing bugs like tuberculosis. At the population level, it gives us a way to track a pathogen’s spread through a population to a degree of accuracy that we’ve never had before - we’re finally starting to understand just how these bugs behave in the community, in hospitals, in the environment, and that’s information that we can turn into better public health policy and practice.
What is your favourite thing about your work?
There’s nothing like the feeling of getting some new genome data back, running a few analyses, and suddenly having the “Aha!” moment where the connection between cases becomes incredibly clear. Every time we run one of these genomic epidemiology analyses, there’s always that one data point that helps the whole picture snap into focus - it’s a bit like putting the last puzzle piece in. I love that I get to do that on a regular basis - a couple of times a month and not just once or twice a year.
An interesting/surprising fact about yourself?
When I’m not sequencing pathogen genomes here at BCCDC, I do a lot of science documentary television work for CBC’s weekly program The Nature of Things. I’ve always done science journalism - mostly writing - alongside my science career dating way back to my grad school days, and since 2007 I’ve been working on various TV projects with CBC. Making Nature of Things episodes takes a couple of weeks so it is a fun little break from the lab once a year, and I like showing Canadians - especially younger viewers - that science is done by cool people with interesting stories, not just mad scientists with lab coats and wild white hair mixing beakers of coloured liquids.