Blog

8 Mar 2021

COG-UK Celebrates International Women’s Day

COG-UK

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we highlight some of the many women whose work has been vital to the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We asked for nominations of women who have made a significant contribution to the establishment and successes of COG-UK during its first 11 months of operation. Just as the consortium is defined by the variety of its partners, the stories we heard back reflect the diversity of women who contribute to COG-UK day-to-day.

Here we feature 37 women, representing a small fraction of the hundreds of women in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whose skill, expertise and dedication make everything possible.

 

Operations Management and Logistics

High-throughput pathogen sequencing on the scale being undertaken by COG-UK requires efficient and effective logistics and operations management. Dr Nikki Smith at the University of Sheffield has managed all financial and contractual requirements as well as staff, reagent, shipping and equipment. Dr Clare McCann has been pivotal in organising the lab and sequencing work and training new staff at Northumbria University. At the University of Nottingham, Victoria Wright has maintained supply lines, solved ordering and scheduling problems and managed COG-UK lab projects, and Wendy Smith has overseen workflow and even picked up a pipette to keep the pipeline flowing.

Dr Sharon Glaysher

“When lockdown of research labs at the University was announced, I immediately contacted Dr Sharon Glaysher with the idea of utilising our skills, equipment and expertise to assist in monitoring and tracking SARS-CoV-2 in local patients. Sharon’s lab management skills, her incredible positive attitude, and understanding of the operations of the NHS were essential in being able to get the project up and running as quickly as possible. The local project, Sequencing and Tracking of Phylogeny in COVID-19 (STOP COVID-19), is the highest recruiting research project currently ongoing within the Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust. The increase in scale as a result of joining the COG-UK consortium was largely down to Sharon’s hard work, and would absolutely not have been possible without her.”

Dr Sam Robson, University of Portsmouth.

Dr Rachael Stanley’s detective work as manager of the Norwich Research Park Biorepository identified clinical metadata for every Pillar 1 sample in Norfolk (that is, samples from NHS hospitals and public health labs), enabling critical clinical questions to be answered. Katrina Slater and Dr Kate Appleby at Public Health England have procured all equipment, handled finances and managed scientific supply chains to support a range of new scientific advances. Tanya Brooklyn’s project management at the Wellcome Sanger Institute has guided the team through hundreds of daily issues whilst keeping everyone smiling. Dr Jeff Barrett calls her “an inspiration and a huge reason for the success of this project”.

Dr Cristina Ariani

Dr Sonia Goncalves

Dr Sonia Goncalves and Dr Cristina Ariani have led the teams responsible for the day-to-day flow of samples through the Lighthouse Lab-Sanger pipeline, without them COG-UK would be lost. Sonia has systematically gone over and beyond to deliver what was needed, accommodate changes, and motivate the team to do the same. An inspiration and a huge reason for the success of this project. Cristina has displayed outstanding commitment, determination and selflessness, providing exceptional support to external stakeholders, internal operational teams and senior management. Cristina has been integral to the successful delivery of genomic surveillance at Sanger, along with distribution of priority samples throughout the UK whilst under intense pressure.”

Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski and Dr Jeff Barrett, Wellcome Sanger Institute.

 

Scientific and Technical Expertise

Many women were nominated for their technical skills in adapting sequencing protocols and pipelines to the speed and scale required by the pandemic response. Sequencing at the University of Nottingham would be lost without the expertise and professional rigour of Dr Nadine Holmes who has set up and refined pathogen sequencing from scratch. Emma Betteridge and Lesley Shirley have played an important role at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, supporting processing development and rollout, setting up automation and software integration and making the rapid scaling up of sequencing of Lighthouse Labs samples possible. Yichen Wang, also from Sanger is adding to the efforts with her work on a method to analyse sequences from runs with evidence of contamination, meaning that even more samples will be sequenced.

Dr Jo Stockton

Dr Jo Stockton has switched her research focus to COVID-19 since April 2020, and has been responsible for making libraries and sequencing thousands of SARS-CoV-2 samples in Birmingham for COG-UK. Jo works part-time whilst managing home schooling for her two children who are studying for exams. She is a superstar! Birmingham genomes are from the dream team of Claire McMurray, Jo Stockton, Anna Casey and Liz Ratcliffe.”

Professor Nick Loman, University of Birmingham.

Peijun Zhang manages the University of Sheffield’s COG-UK technical team and keeps colleagues motivated during shift work, pitching in during the early hours to help meet demand. Also at Sheffield, Dr Adrienn Angyal has been instrumental in the rapid scale up of sequencing, which she manages alongside other SARS-CoV-2 research. At Barts Health NHS Trust, biomedical scientist Dola Owoyemi has validated and implemented sequencing protocols and led on all extractions, PCR and sequencing activities, with help from volunteer Claire E Broad. Aine O’Toole and Verity Hill, both PhD students at the University of Edinburgh, have been creating tools to analyse the evolution, phylogenetics and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 which are being used by research groups around the world.

Amy State

Some sites have smaller teams. Dr Jude Heaney is the only lab scientist working on COG-UK sequencing at the Advanced Pathogen Diagnostics Unit at University College London Hospitals (UCLH) NHS Foundation Trust. She has personally sequenced over 3000 genomes, enabling rapid outbreak management in local hospitals.

“Amy State is a clinical scientist in the NHS diagnostic virology laboratory in Sheffield and has been the lynchpin in ensuring successful flow of samples and data to the Sheffield COG-UK sequencing team. This has been exceptionally important during the COG-UK Hospital-Onset COVID-19 Infections (HOCI) trial when Amy organised identification of relevant samples in a timely way despite the diagnostic lab work pressures. She epitomises how closely the NHS and University teams work together in Sheffield.”

Dr Thushan de Silva, University of Sheffield. 

Many of our scientists have had to change their roles. Angela Beckett joined the team at Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust on the day of the first lockdown and immediately dropped her proposed research project to help with the pandemic. She ended up developing the lab’s sequencing protocols and ensuring high quality sequence output, and now mentors new members of the group. Dr Miao Tang joined the small Queen’s University Belfast COG-UK sequencing team in November, already medically qualified and writing up her PhD. She switched to work on nanopore sequencing and is now the team’s go-to expert.

 

Scientific and Business Leadership

Dr Sally Corden

The crucial leadership role of women is a theme throughout the nominations. Dr Rachel Williams, Head of Sequencing at UCL Genomics, UCL, supports COG-UK sequencing across the whole of London, the HOCI study in three sites including Sandwell in West Birmingham, Pillar 2 (community) sequencing and wastewater sequencing.

“I nominate my manager, Dr Sally Corden, for her immense contribution to the COG-UK work. Sally is the Head of the Pathogen Genomics Unit at Public Health Wales and she has been fundamental in the sequencing achievements we have made. In addition to her accomplishments within COG-UK she has also maintained the routine genomics services at Public Health Wales and is a very compassionate and caring line manager who regularly goes above and beyond to ensure the wellbeing of her staff.”

Dr Nicole Pacchiarini, Public Health Wales.

Dr Gemma Kay at the Quadram Institute leads all genome sequencing for her region and has expanded the capacity to reliably sequence up to 2000 SARS-CoV-2 samples per week, an enormous challenge alongside her normal day job.

“Dr Angie Lackenby was present at the very first planning meeting that led to the development of COG-UK, back in March 2020. Her involvement was critically important back then, and remains so today. Angie has been instrumental in supporting the consortium as a key member of the PHE team at Colindale. A huge thank you, Angie, for your contribution.”

Professor Sharon Peacock, Executive Director and Chair of COG-UK.

Dr Katerina Galai

Dr Ana Filipe leads the sequencing at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research’s genome facility. Her team has sequenced over 5000 COG-UK genomes and responded to Public Health Scotland’s requests to rapidly turn around sequencing for their outbreak investigations.

“I nominate Dr Katerina Galai for her excellent approach and the wisdom she brings to all aspects of the business management of COG-UK. Katerina has made huge and transformational improvements to consortium management since she joined, which represents an important part of our success.”

Professor Sharon Peacock, Executive Director and Chair of COG-UK.

Finally, Dr Kate Templeton at the University of Edinburgh has been nominated as “an inspiring leader who has been instrumental to the success of genomics in Scotland” while Dr Catherine Ludden, COG-UK Director of Operations had perhaps the simplest nomination of all: “she is the reason that the network functions”.

We honour these women, along with all contributors to COG-UK, for the role they’ve played in the consortium and by extension in the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that other women and girls will be inspired to train for, seek promotion in or return to careers in science, technology and high-level management.

 

COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK)

The current COVID-19 pandemic, caused by SARS-CoV-2, represents a major threat to health. The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium has been created to deliver large-scale and rapid whole-genome virus sequencing to local NHS centres and the UK government.

Led by Professor Sharon Peacock of the University of Cambridge, COG-UK is made up of an innovative partnership of NHS organisations, the four Public Health Agencies of the UK, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and academic partners providing sequencing and analysis capacity. A full list of collaborators can be found here. Professor Peacock is also on a part-time secondment to PHE as Director of Science, where she focuses on the development of pathogen sequencing through COG-UK.

COG-UK was established in April 2020 supported by £20 million funding from the COVID-19 rapid-research-response “fighting fund” from Her Majesty’s Treasury (established by Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance), and administered by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. The consortium was also backed by the Department of Health and Social Care’s Testing Innovation Fund on 16 November 2020 to facilitate the genome sequencing capacity needed to meet the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the UK over the winter period.