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9 Feb 2022

“People say to me all the time ‘you don’t look like a typical scientist’…” – in conversation with Dr Maria Van Kerkhove

To kick off Women in COG in 2022, we speak to Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 Technical Lead at the World Health Organization (WHO), about the inspiration that led her to a career in epidemiology, applying a leadership mindset to everything we do, and balancing an ambitious career and family life.

Watch the full recording of the event from the 27th January, 2022, or read our summary of the conversation below.

 

From an early age, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, American infectious disease epidemiologist and COVID-19 Technical Lead at the World Health Organization (WHO), was fascinated by science. This continued into high school where she developed a passion for reading books about infectious disease outbreaks. “I read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston which was about the origins of viral life-threatening diseases, such as Ebola virus, and these incredible scientists – all men – who studied and sought to investigate these pathogens.”

The more she read, the more she found herself drawn to the discipline of epidemiology. “I loved the idea that you have these viruses that are benign in animals, which can spill over into people yet only harm some, but not others.”

Maria went on to pursue an education in epidemiology and has since established herself as a highly respected research scientist in this discipline. She is now serving in a leadership role at the WHO, focusing on the COVID-19 response. She is as inspirational as the visionaries she used to read about as a child. “People say to me all the time ‘you don’t look like a typical scientist’. I often wonder what a typical scientist looks like? I’m not male… I don’t have white hair… any of us could be scientists.”

While Maria is hopeful for the future and the doors that are opening for women in science, she feels that there is some way to go. “We need to create a more positive environment and find a way to make science more accessible to women.” Currently, only 25% of healthcare leadership roles are occupied by women, despite 75% of healthcare being delivered by women.

Although the word ‘leadership’ is associated with seniority and management, it has nothing to do with job titles. Leadership is defined as ‘the process of social influence, which maximises the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal’. Maria has demonstrated strong leadership throughout the pandemic in her public-facing role, communicating critical public health information to support behaviour change.

Maria believes that leadership takes on more forms than we realise and that everyone has the potential to be a leader. “I think all of us should be looking at ourselves in leadership positions wherever we are – whether it’s our family, our community or the job that we have – we can all be leaders.”

Juggling work and home life is a challenge Maria is all too familiar with, especially having taken on such a demanding, public-facing role. “The pressure has been extreme because of the responsibility. As a woman, you just have to make it work. There’s no set path – you create your own and follow it. I’m lucky that I have an amazing husband who has taken on a lot of the responsibility with the kids, but I wish I were with my children more as I haven’t seen them very much in the last two years.”

So, does Maria believe that a perfect work life balance exists? “I’m not sure that it does,” she answers pragmatically. But she does think that with a conscious effort, a reasonable compromise can be reached. “What we can do is to try and figure out how we make time to do our jobs well, but also for the people that we love. I recognise that I need to do this more and have been trying to be home more on weekends. I’m imperfect but I try to do my best. I’m a work in progress.”

Maria has had an incredible career to date through her hard work and determination. She notes that she took risks – some which paid off and some that didn’t. For anyone looking to break into the world of public health Maria’s message is clear, “Choose jobs where you can network. It’s a small world. There’s so much to learn from the inspiring people in this field”.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove

Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, is an infectious disease epidemiologist and the COVID-19 Technical Lead at World Health Organization (WHO). Dr Van Kerkhove specializes in outbreaks of emerging and re-emerging pathogens. In addition to her appointment as the COVID-19 Technical Lead, Dr Van Kerkhove is also the Head of the Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses Unit within the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.

Dr Van Kerkhove’s main research interests include zoonotic, respiratory, and emerging/re-emerging viruses such as avian influenza, MERS-CoV, Ebola, Marburg, plague and Zika. She is particularly interested in investigating factors associated with transmission between animals and humans, the epidemiology of zoonotic pathogens, and ensuring research directly informs public health policies for action.

She completed her undergraduate degree at Cornell University, a MS Degree at Stanford University, and a PhD in infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Prior to joining WHO, Dr Van Kerkhove was the Head of the Outbreak Investigation Task Force at Institut Pasteur’s Center for Global Health where she was responsible for establishing public health rapid response teams for infectious disease outbreaks. She was previously employed by Imperial College London in the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling where she worked closely with WHO on influenza, Yellow fever, Meningitis, MERS-CoV and Ebola Virus Disease.

 

About Women in COG

The COG-UK consortium has over 500 members with a range of scientific and business expertise in genomics, bioinformatics, operations clinical science and public health. Women in COG is a supportive network to share experience and knowledge and to promote science careers in women and girls.

This was an event in our series of monthly lunchtime Women in COG events and everyone (regardless of gender) is welcome to attend. The events will feature a conversation with a guest or consortium member followed by an informal Q&A.

Check out our past and upcoming Women in COG events.


COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK)

The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium works in partnership to harness the power of SARS-CoV-2 genomics in the fight against COVID-19.

Led by Professor Sharon Peacock of the University of Cambridge, COG-UK is made up of an innovative collaboration of NHS organisations, the four public health agencies of the UK, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and sixteen academic partners. A full list of collaborators can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by SARS-CoV-2, represents a major threat to health. The COG-UK consortium was formed in March 2020 to deliver SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing and analysis to inform public health policy and to support the establishment of a national pathogen sequencing service, with sequence data now predominantly generated by the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Public Health Agencies.

SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing and analysis plays a key role in the COVID-19 public health response by enabling the identification, tracking and analysis of variants of concern, and by informing the design of vaccines and therapeutics. COG-UK works collaboratively to deliver world-class research on pathogen sequencing and analysis, maximise the value of genomic data by ensuring fair access and data linkage, and provide a training programme to enable equity in global sequencing.