Researcher Spotlight: Ellen Hughes

‌‌‌Ellen Hughes PortraitTell us a little about your background.
I started my academic life as a historian but after a couple of years working in historical research, I changed direction and went to vet school!  During my veterinary training, I undertook an intercalated BA in Zoology and it was during this year that I became interested in scientific research.  I qualified as a vet in 2013 and worked in mixed practice in Wales for two years before moving to small animal practice in England and Scotland.  During this time I undertook an MSc in One Health by distance learning from the University of Edinburgh and started looking for PhDs!

What can you tell us about the structure of your PhD?
I am part of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences Doctoral Training Programme (MVLS DTP); as such, I spent the first six months of my PhD working on two different twelve-week rotation projects. These rotations gave me the opportunity to learn new lab techniques and to undertake field work in Tanzania before beginning my main research project. Though not directly related to either of my short projects, my main PhD is supervised by both the supervisors from my rotations.

What is the focus of your research?
My research is focused on understanding the epidemiology of Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever virus (CCHFV) in northern Tanzania. CCHFV is a tick-borne virus, with livestock and small mammal reservoirs, which can cause a fatal haemorrhagic fever in humans. The virus has not been identified in Tanzania since the 1970’s but this is more likely because no one has looked for it than because it is not there! Recently, there have been several outbreaks of CCHFV in humans in nearby Uganda, and northern Tanzania has been identified as an area of high risk for viral circulation; consequently, the potential for human outbreaks in the country may be high. Understanding the epidemiology of the virus in livestock and ticks will help to quantify the risk to humans in the area.

Why did you decide to do your PhD in IBACHM?
During my intercalated zoology degree at the University of Cambridge, I was lucky enough to undertake a BBSCR-funded student project working on rabies in Tanzania with Sarah Cleaveland, Katie Hampson and other researchers from IBAHCM. This gave me the bug for disease research (no pun intended!) and everyone I worked with from Glasgow was so welcoming and supportive I knew I would sieze any opportunity to work with them again. Whilst I was looking for PhD’s, my partner got a job at the vet school in Glasgow and shortly afterwards I got my place on the MVLS DTP: it seems like fate that I have ended up working with the team who first inspired my love of research!

What do you find most interesting about your work?
I love being able to really get stuck into one subject and to be able to keep asking questions! The disease I am studying has complex transmission dynamics that are not fully understood and I like the fact that sometimes there are more questions than answers – it means there is still so much to discover!

What has been the most positive aspect so far?
Being a DTP student has enabled me to gain a broader range of experiences than I might otherwise have done and to work on several different projects as well as being given the opportunity to develop my main project on a fascinating subject. My supervisors, Sarah Cleaveland, Brian Willett (from the Centre for Virus Research), Felix Lankester (from Washington State University) and Kath Allan, have been very supportive and have taught me so much already, whilst also giving me the freedom to develop my own ideas and research direction.

What has been the most challenging aspect so far?
The flip side of the broad range of experiences I have had through my DTP projects has been that I took longer to get started on my main project, and it has sometimes felt hard to balance and prioritise different tasks. However, seeing the juggling acts all of my supervisors pull-off on a daily basis has made me realise that this is a vital skill within an academic career, so hopefully I am getting good practice!

What part of your research so far have you felt most proud of?
My second DTP rotation was a field-based project characterising a neurological syndrome in sheep and goats in Tanzania and this work is currently under peer review. I was lucky to work with a fantastic team of researchers from both Glasgow and Tanzania on this project and I am immensely proud of the hard work we put in. It will be great to have a paper out if it gets accepted!

If you could tell your first-year-self-1 thing, what would it be?
Believe in yourself!  Work hard but take your time, not everything has to get finished today!

Tell us about your plans for the future
I hope to stay in academic research after my PhD, but I am not ruling out other related options at this stage – there are so many exciting opportunities out there! 

Don’t miss Ellen’s talk entitled ‘Crimean Congo Haemorrhagic Fever virus in Tanzania’ at 16:00 on the 26/10/18!

First published: 18 October 2018