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Meet the scientists with the skills to fight COVID-19


The global pandemic has shone a light on scientists with the skills to understand and fight back against COVID-19

A CSIRO team – including SS Vasan, Laurence Wilson and Michael Kuiper – use maths and health knowledge in a race against time with new SARS-CoV-2 mutations.

As the CSIRO’s COVID-19 project leader, Vasan has been at the heart of Australia’s pandemic response from the start. His 92-strong team was the first outside of China to grow stocks of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), the first to show that ferrets are a useful animal to test vaccines, and the first to identify how the virus is mutating.

“Now, I’m working with Michael and Laurence to develop an early warning system concerning virus mutations,” he says.

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Some of this work involves designing new methods to track changes in the virus, as well as platforms to handle the enormous amount of data being collected from around the world. Other parts involve simulating how vaccines interact with new mutations of the virus.

Ultimately, the CSIRO researchers want to apply their knowledge about COVID-19 to develop “affordable vaccines and therapies that can withstand these mutations” and help
end the pandemic.

SS Vasan, COVID-19 project leader

What do you love about your job?

“I love the fact that we can pursue deep collaboration between teams with complementary expertise. I learn something new from my colleagues in every single interaction. It’s humbling. We are paid to think about – and solve – big problems that will make a difference. There’s nothing more fulfilling than that.”

RELATED: Why do you need a COVID-19 vaccine?

SS Vasan, COVID-19 Project Leader

Career advice for a future pandemic warrior?

“Take your time, gain broad skills and learn teamwork. Interesting stints in various roles around the world gave me first-hand experience and knowledge of the challenges scientists in resource-constrained settings face. It also gave me insights on how the same problem is approached differently by small businesses, big pharmaceutical companies and healthcare commissioners. And it showed me the need to operate at speed during emergencies.”

Michael Kuiper, biomolecular modeller

What does a biomolecular modeller do?

Michael Kuiper, biomolecular modeller

“My work focuses on looking at proteins and how they interact with one another and small drug-like molecules. It’s very dynamic – we look at the new genetic data almost on a daily basis, and we work together with scientists who specialise in other areas, such as growing viruses in cells, or bioinformatics, to help get the bigger picture. Virtual reality has also been a terrific help in visualising the virus proteins that I use.”

Laurence Wilson, bioinformatician

Best thing about your career?

Laurence Wilson, bioinformatician

“I’ve always loved science and that gives me an excuse to constantly be learning new things and asking more questions. I’m fascinated by the problem-solving aspect; the moment when you finally figure something out or find that piece of evidence that proves your hypothesis is just the best. At CSIRO, I also get to focus on translational science – doing research that has a direct impact on the world and contributes to the global good.”

Shruthi Mangalaganesh, CSIRO intern from Monash University

What have you learnt from being on this team?

Shruthi Mangalaganesh, CSIRO intern from Monash University

“I’ve always been fascinated by the science behind how the human body works. During my internship at CSIRO, I worked on the scientific project on SARS-CoV-2, focusing on the virus mutation rate and the frequency of specific mutations in countries across the globe. I helped with the development of some codes to sort the data – there were over 200,000 entries – so it was easier to analyse. It has furthered my passion and opened my eyes into what a career in research looks like.”

This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Maths & Data 2021.

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