Professor Emma Thomson, OBE, is a Professor in Infectious Diseases at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research. We spoke to her during our June Women in COG event about her unique experiences, before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
You can watch the full recording of the event from the 29th June, 2022 and read our summary of the conversation below.
“My A-level exam results were actually a bit of a surprise,” says Emma, “My physics teacher called up the exam board to check that I had really gotten an A”. Having attended a comprehensive school in Glasgow, while “most children of professors and doctors were at private schools,” Emma’s teachers had never expected her to win a place to study medicine.
But it was only after graduating and starting clinical practice that Emma discovered her true passion was in fact for research, and she returned to university to study for a PhD. “Medicine was the route for someone interested in science when I was at school”, she recalls. “But I was really interested in understanding how things worked, I wanted to go deeper.”
Her curiosity was originally sparked by her grandfather when he lent her his copy of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’, which quickly led her onto Charles Darwin. “I became obsessed with pigeons because of Charles Darwin’s work on variation under domestication,” Emma jokes.
Her research eventually took her to Uganda to research emerging viruses, particularly to look at causes of non-malarial fever in rural health centres. “We wanted to get a view of what infectious pathogens were around the health centres, and what humans were being exposed to,” says Emma. This involved looking at the ecosystem within a 5km radius, working with an entomologist to collect mosquitoes, and a vet to look at domestic animals.
When COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, Emma’s project in Uganda, with the Uganda Virus Research Institute, was paused and she returned to the UK. “We’re starting to look at the data again now and have identified 400 viruses in the mosquitoes that were collected, including a few new viruses that haven’t been seen before in humans”. Emma explains that the sequencing methods are much more cost-effective because of the innovations from the COVID-19 pandemic, and so a lot more can be done compared to what they were doing pre-pandemic.
During the pandemic, Emma was heavily involved in sequencing SARS-CoV-2 as part of COG-UK, and now works across multiple roles, including in an advisory capacity with policy makers about vaccines and new technologies. “As a communicator, it’s important to distil the complexity of a situation into an understandable format,” says Emma, “but we need to move away from the black and white messaging, which puts the public off”. Emma wants to see more nuance brought into the public arena and believes that scientists have a huge responsibility to combat misinformation.
“Vaccine hesitancy should be addressed in the right way, but we need to be aware that there is money to be made in misinformation,” says Emma, “we need to tackle this nationally and internationally through proper regulation, so that the public can be well informed, about COVID-19 and any future health threats”.
When asked her advice in pursuing a career in science, Emma says that you should “never underestimate the importance of building strong relationships”. “Most of the hurdles we face are personal, so it’s also important that you work on the things you find difficult,” says Emma, “Tackle your weaknesses head on by surrounding yourself with people that you can learn from, and by regularly putting yourself outside of your comfort zone.”
Professor Emma Thomson, OBE
Professor Emma Thomson, OBE, is a COG-UK Principal Investigator for the University of Glasgow and a Professor in Infectious Diseases at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research. She was recently awarded Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to the NHS during the COVID-19 response. Currently Professor Thomson is heavily involved in sequencing SARS-CoV-2 as part of COG-UK. She is the local principal investigator for two vaccine trials running within Greater Glasgow and Clyde. In addition to her work with COVID-19, Professor Thomson’s main research focus is on emerging infections in Uganda, working closely with the Uganda Virus Research Institute and in the UK.
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.