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Virology: From the Invisible to the Global

What Is Virology?

In their most basic form, viruses are just genetic material, RNA or DNA, wrapped in protein. Viruses can’t multiply unless they infect a host cell. These simple structures pose complicated puzzles, though, like how they take over an entire cell using just a few proteins, and how they evade our immune system’s efforts to eliminate them. Virologists study how viruses force their way into our cells and how our bodies fight back. They predict patterns of infection and plan public health strategies for when a viral disease spreads around the world during a pandemic.

Micheline Pelletier for L’Oréal Corporate Foundation
Pamela Björkman

Pamela Björkman is a designer. She doesn’t design clothes or buildings or anything that we can see. She designs proteins to attack HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. When we are infected with a virus, or get a vaccine, our immune system makes antibodies that stick to the virus so it can’t infect our cells. “But people don’t make very effective antibodies against HIV,” says Pamela. “We’re trying to design a better anti-HIV antibody.” In her laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, she starts with a few rare antibodies that are good at preventing HIV from infecting host cells. She and the scientists in her lab examine how these antibodies work, then tweak them or combine them with parts of other proteins, so they work even better. The best of the engineered antibodies are sent to another scientist who collaborates with Pamela’s lab, who is finding ways to use the designer antibodies for possible gene therapy against HIV and AIDS.

Pamela, a L’Oréal-UNESCO laureate in 2006, is a biology professor, and says she has been interested in science since high school. “I really enjoyed high school chemistry, and even tried to do research when I was in school, but I didn’t know anyone who could help me find a lab. Now, I sometimes have high school students working in my own lab.” If visiting or working in a research laboratory sounds interesting to you, your school might have a program to connect you with professors at a nearby university, or you could do research as an undergraduate in college, says Pamela. The important thing, she says, is to “try doing research as soon as you can, and keep at it.”

A Veterinarian Learns Molecular Biology from a Virus

Margarita Marqués Martinez, known as Margot, has also been interested in science since she was a young student, but she trained as a veterinarian. “I always wanted to be in the lab, though,” she says. “I’ve always liked looking at cells under the microscope and observing things that you are not able to see with just your eyes.” When Margot was a postgraduate student in Spain, her supervisors wanted her to learn molecular biology techniques, like how to engineer genes, and introduce them into cells. She was awarded a UNESCO-L’Oréal Fellowship to work in virus research at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, where she learned how to clone and manipulate genes. Now, back in Spain, she uses what she learned from virus research in her work on animals, finding ways to put new genes into sheep cells. This is how farm animals like sheep can be made to secrete medically useful proteins into their milk. Since milk is so easy to collect, the proteins can be quickly purified from the milk proteins, and used therapeutically, or for vaccines. Margot’s work could improve the amount of these proteins that sheep produce in their milk. She says, “The reward is that you are doing something in the laboratory that can translate into a benefit for people, and maybe for healthier animals, too.”

Micheline Pelletier for L’Oréal Corporate Foundation
Margot Martinez

Just as she was taught new skills as a student, Margot now encourages new students at her university, in León, Spain. “Once a year, before they start at the university, students come and spend a day with us and see what we are doing,” she says. “I love their enthusiasm!” Don’t lose that energy, she advises, and find good people to mentor and train you. Margot says she’s grateful to her mentors, who taught her to ask good scientific questions, and to be creative and rigorous about answering them. She also stresses that biology is not a 9-to-5 job, saying, “In science, routine does not exist! If you like every day of the week to be the same, don’t go into science, but if you are willing to take on challenges, then science could be for you.”

Margot was educated in Spain, Germany, and the Roslin Institute in the United Kingdom (where Dolly the sheep was cloned), and still travels often. This global approach is common among scientists. They may travel around the world, just like a virus, but instead of spreading disease, they acquire and transmit knowledge, discovery, and technology. “I work in a small institute,” says Margot, “so collaborations are very important.” She notes that she already has many women on her research teams. “Right now,” she says, “where I work, I think there are at least three women for every man.” All these scientists are very dedicated, and spend many hours working and thinking about their research. Finding a balance between work and family is a challenge for any scientist, says Margot, perhaps for women in particular. For this reason, Margot says, “Your family must understand and support your passion for your work.”

The Big Picture

Petra Klepac has a passion for science, and her enthusiasm is clear as she describes her work on the big picture of viral infection—the really big picture. She studies how viruses can spread through a population, and the best way to get vaccines and treatments to people around the world during a disease outbreak. She wants to improve how health officials control infectious diseases. “I’ve always liked science, especially math and biology, and I found an area where I could combine the two,” she says. Petra uses computer modeling to see how factors like time, and the cost of a drug or vaccine, affect how quickly nations respond to a disease epidemic.

Since viruses infect all types of cells, not all virus research projects involve humans. Another of Petra’s projects was tracing transmission of a virus in harbor seals. The virus causes a disease that is like the canine distemper that people vaccinate their dogs against. The project used her training in math and biology, and her people skills, because she worked with scientists and veterinarians from several other countries. They went out to beaches to find where seals were dying, then used computer modeling to figure out how the virus was transmitted through the seal population in northern Europe. Petra now uses what she learned from that project to follow the transmission of human viruses.

Micheline Pelletier for L’Oréal Corporate Foundation
Petra Klepac

When Petra was a student in Croatia, she says former students of her school came back to talk about what they were learning in college, and entertained her with stories of unusual experiments and science problems. She says this taught her that “science can be fun, not geeky! And it can be cool when you solve a problem.” Since then, her pursuit of science has taken her from Croatia to universities in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania—where she carried out her UNESCO-L’Oréal Fellowship work—and now to Princeton University in the United States. Like Margot, Petra says scientists must learn to juggle many time-consuming interests. “Your best years in science are also your reproductive years,” she says, which is a consideration for women going into any scientific field. Petra is encouraging, though. “There’s nothing that girls and young women can’t do,” she says. Another aspect of being a scientist that students might not expect is public speaking, both as a teacher, and at conferences and seminars. But it is easy to talk about something you love doing, says Petra. “I enjoy talking about my work, and I look forward to teaching.”

If you are interested in virus research as a career, Petra says it is “very doable,” as long as you have a love of science. Her advice is “follow your curiosity and go where your interests lie,” whether that is studying the details of a single virus, or medical research to improve the way doctors treat viral infections, or planning the strategy against viral pandemics. “When people find what they love to do, they are naturally good at it. In science, maybe you have to be a little more persistent and self-motivated, because you need a lot of education to get to the place you want to be. But if you love doing it, it’s completely worth it.”