News / 2 June 2020

Why did you become a scientist?
I’ve always been fascinated by biology and the natural world. As a child, I was always doing nature projects and going around collecting samples. It just seemed a natural next step to go and study science.

What are your scientific interests?
My primary interest is understanding the immune system from a systems-level perspective; how all the components (or as many components as we can measure) work together in response to infection, cancer or other perturbations. For the past few years, I’ve been particularly interested in how gut microbiota influences immune system development and response in a range of different contexts – from infant vaccination to cancer and immunotherapy.

Has the coronavirus pandemic changed how you feel about your job?
I felt it was important that, as scientists, we do something to respond to what is a major global crisis in our field of research.

Science is very much a team effort and the response – nationally and internationally – has been amazing from the scientific community, especially given the difficulties in funding.

I guess we’re all hopeful, but sceptical, that the current appreciation for the role of science, scientists and medical professionals in society will stick for a bit. We hope the public will be more aware of the importance of what scientists and doctors do, and will put pressure on national and international governments to make sure that we’re supporting important research as well as we can.

Which unresolved question would you most like to answer?
There are lots of questions that fascinate me, but one of the questions I’ve been focusing on in the last few years is trying to understand immune responses in infants to vaccination, and how to optimise those responses so that we can achieve as high a level of protection as possible.

There’s evidence that some vaccines that work very well in developed-world populations aren’t as effective in developing-world settings and we don’t fully understand why that is. My group has done a lot of work to show that the composition of gut microbiota may modulate the immune system in such a way that it alters infant responses to vaccination.

Given that millions of infants in developing countries are dying every year from preventable infectious diseases, if we could even incrementally improve how well infants respond to vaccination, it could have very significant effects on infant mortality around the world.

Name one tool you can’t do without. 
My computer – most of my time is spent on it, either analysing data or writing grant applications and papers.

What advice would you give early-career researchers in the current climate?
If you don’t really love doing science, there are easier ways to make a buck. If you’re really passionate about what you do, I don’t think you need to be unduly concerned. There’s always a need for well-trained, productive scientists in the world.

More about David’s research

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