Blog

29 Jun 2021

In conversation with the “Queen of Virology”, Professor Judy Breuer

At our second monthly ‘Women in COG’ event on the 17th June, we caught up with Judy Breuer, Professor of Virology at University College London, where she is COG-UK Principal Investigator and Chief Investigator of the Hospital Onset COVID-19 Infections (HOCI) study. Described by Sharon Peacock as “an absolute legend in clinical virology”, Judy shared her story of how she made it to where she is today, and her personal experiences as a woman in science. Watch the full recording here and read our summary of the event below.

The early years

Growing up in a family of engineers, chemists and physicists, it was always expected that Judy would have a career in science. While her parents and other close relatives all followed similar pathways, Judy was more intrigued by biology and medicine, and considers herself to be somewhat rebellious for deviating from the family norm.

An “immensely influential” figure throughout Judy’s childhood was her mother, a physics and chemistry teacher who gave up her PhD to raise a family. Despite not being ambitious in terms of her own profession, Judy’s mother strongly encouraged her children to have a career in science, and was particularly positive about Judy’s interest in medicine.

Climbing the ladder

Drawn to practising medicine and treating patients as soon as possible, Judy initially had no interest in research and took the fastest route to get through medical school. An array of inspiring teachers motivated her throughout her time studying medicine and played a vital role in shaping her future career, including Professor Sally Davies, who went on to become the UK’s Chief Medical Officer.

During her medical career, Judy found herself constantly asking questions, wondering about what exactly was happening to the patients she was treating. This desire drove her to branch out into research, and she secured a research fellowship within the National Institute of Medical Research. Judy instantly became enchanted with research, and was inspired by her clinical experience to keep investigating unanswered questions that continued to emerge in hospital.

Over the years, Judy’s career went from strength to strength on a journey to becoming a world-leading expert on the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), and was given the opportunity to work overseas studying HIV-2 in The Gambia, seeding a lifelong interest in collaborating with colleagues across the globe — something she considers to be essential for enriching her research.

Raising a family

While Judy acknowledges that the support for new mothers has improved vastly in recent years, she believes that as a society it is “completely underestimated what the difficulties are” for working mothers. Aside from the time spent on maternity leave and caring for young children, Judy flags the additional challenges of “getting your brain back in gear”, managing childcare and learning to handle feelings of guilt about being back at work.

Judy is often asked by other women in science about the best time to start raising a family, to which she responds, “There is never a right time to have children, it’s always inconvenient, but one should go ahead when it feels right for you”. She urges others to avoid sacrificing family for work at all costs, “You can always recover your career; it may be less easy to recover problems with your family”.

The value of resilience

While thankfully times are changing and society is now more aware of sexism within the workplace, many women have suffered prejudice during their careers — and Judy is no exception. “I definitely encountered overt misogyny and sexism,” Judy says. In one interview she was asked whether she had any children and if she intended to have any more, which was followed up with the interviewer stating “women with children don’t do well in medicine and science”.

Judy acknowledges that while such behaviour is now illegal in the workplace, underlying sexism and misogyny is still often present, including ‘mansplaining’, for instance. A thick skin is essential for women to handle these frustrating situations, Judy says, but aside from occasional sexism, she also notes that it’s not just women who need to be resilient within the science community. “Science is often about the individual, people are judged by what they are doing…to survive you’ve got to develop a thick skin…you’ve got to learn how to stand up for yourself.”

Imposter syndrome

Despite being known to some as the “Queen of Virology” and having a wealth of notable achievements and hugely successful career, Judy notes that even she suffers from ‘imposter syndrome’ — the belief that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. “Everybody has imposter syndrome, I have it hugely…the thing that always helps me, is when I feel I’ve made a real fool of myself…I always say to myself, the person who remembers this is you, everybody else will have moved on.”

Judy believes the best way to handle imposter syndrome is to train yourself to not dwell on your mistakes, something that she continues to grapple with even now. “I just say to myself ‘forget it, move on’…because otherwise one can’t function…you have to remember that certainly most women, and quite a lot of men have imposter syndrome, and they are just dealing with it, learning to push it to one side and move forward.”

Looking to the future

Utilising findings from genomic data within clinical practice is one of Judy’s goals for the future. As the Chief Investigator of the Hospital Onset COVID-19 Infections (HOCI) study, she is excited about the final results of the trial, describing it as “one of the few studies that will provide granular data on where we are with using sequencing for infection control throughout the NHS”, and one that should show how genomics can inform clinical care.

Moving forward, Judy will continue her work on norovirus, applying similar questions to those being asked now about SARS-CoV-2 — “Where do pandemic strains come from? Where do new variants come from?” — the answers to which she hopes will have significant clinical impact.

A pearl of wisdom

When asked for advice for others who are looking to follow a similar career path, Judy comments, “You have to be really interested in research to do it. I have, at various points in my career thought ‘I don’t want to do this anymore…it’s too much hard work’, and in the end I can’t help myself, I just want to know the answer”. To those that have that same drive, Judy urges, “don’t let anything stand in your way…if you keep asking questions and keep your interest, you will shine through”.

 

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.