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Preparations are under way for the BFWG Research Presentations Day on the 17th May. Southwick Media will be filming the event and we are delighted to say that Dr Ellie Cosgrove – one of the winners of the NCW SpeakOut competition which we supported with book token prizes and BFWG membership – will be presenting the research day film.  Meanwhile here’s a blog from Dr Lucy Thorne
 – a winner of our centenary award – about how important our scholarship awards are to young women in their third year of their doctoral research. We even got mentions on BBC local radio.

Secrets to the success of the Winter Vomiting Bug

What do hospitals, schools, cruise ships and some of Britain’s top restaurants have in common? This was the question that I asked at the BFWG Wales and Mercia Regional Meeting two weeks ago. It was hosted by the Worcester Association and was held at the Lower Smite Farm, headquarters for a local wildlife trust and a beautiful setting for the day. I was thrilled to be invited by Angela Poppleton and Gail Sagar to present my research, my first experience as an invited guest speaker, and it was a real pleasure to meet everyone over lunch (once the nerves from the talk had subsided, the delicious homemade lunch had been served and the wine was opened!)

The answer to that question is that unfortunately we tend to think of all of these places as the hunting ground for norovirus, which you might know better by its press name of the winter vomiting bug. Norovirus is a very successful virus, which most people will have experienced as it causes millions of infections in the UK every year, the majority of which occur in places with close living environments where norovirus really thrives. The secret of its success is due to a number of characteristics that combine to make it such a ‘perfect pathogen’, as some scientists have described it. These features include the fact it is highly infectious, very stable on surfaces, can spread far and wide (up to 9 feet) by the severe projectile vomiting it induces, it replicates at high speed and is a master of disguise, mutating regularly to hide from your immune systems. As yet we have no drugs or a vaccine to tackle it so hand washing and containment are paramount, particularly in hospitals.

Human norovirus strains have been very difficult to work with and grow in cells in the laboratory, which we use to mimic infections in the body and study the virus. I showed the audience how working on related norovirus strains, which we can grow in the lab, is helping to better understand how the virus works and move closer to developing effective drugs. We have identified the essential elements of the virus, which can reveal the key parts to target with drugs and we are beginning to understand how it hijacks and manipulates our cells to get itself replicated. This can also be a key step in being able to design drugs that might block the virus being able to use our cells and stop its growth.  

To publicise my talk and the Regional Meeting Gail Sagar gave a press release which was picked up by BBC Hereford and Worcester and I was invited to give two radio interviews all about norovirus and the BFWG, this was my first time on the air and I really enjoyed it! The interviewer was very chatty which made it a lot easier than a formal interview, which is more what I am used to in academic circles! They were particularly interested in hearing about norovirus and what we’re doing about it as two wards in Worcester hospitals were shut with norovirus at the time- a common containment measure for all hospitals during the winter season. At the end of the interview I was able to talk about the BFWG, what it is and stands for and hopefully gave listeners information about its scholarship program for both academic and welfare support. I was also able to mention the local scholarships schemes, such as one provided by the local Worcester Association for a female undergraduate at the University of Worcester in maths or engineering to encourage women to enter these disciplines. The lack of women in academic and non-academic science professions is something I feel particularly strongly about and working in research it is something myself and my female colleagues discuss a lot considering that only about 9% of top academics in this country are female. We finished the interview talking about the lack of women in science, which is a quite a complex multifactorial problem, but how it is actually an exciting time as there is a lot going on to change it. I recently attended a Science and Diversity day at the House of Commons with the Society for General Microbiology, where I was excited to hear about so many initiatives at all levels that aim to promote and encourage young girls and women into science disciplines. It will be interesting to see how these come together over the next few years to bring about the substantial changes that are needed. To me an organisation like the BFWG really contributes to this through encouraging and supporting women into academic studies in all areas, not just science.

Norovirus has been the focus of my PhD and ongoing research for the past five years, which has been funded by The Wellcome Trust, with support from the BFWG. In 2012 I was awarded the BFWG Centenary Scholarship. It was an incredibly generous award and it provided me with extra financial security whilst I was writing my thesis. I have also been able to put it towards travel to international conferences in America and China, which have been brilliant experiences! The chance to attend and present my research at these conferences has created many opportunities and the award has already helped my career in a number of ways, as I’m sure it will continue to do so. For this I am still incredibly grateful to the BFWG, thank you!

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