Our inaugural Outstanding Ambassador for Immunology Award has been awarded jointly to Professor Danny Altmann and Dr Victoria Male, both at Imperial College London.
We spoke to Victoria about her work communicating the evidence around COVID-19 vaccines, pregnancy and fertility, and how her role promoting science has changed during the pandemic.
(Read our interview with Professor Danny Altmann here.)
The pandemic has brought immunology firmly into the limelight. What positives do you think this has led to? And what are some of the challenges?
What’s really great is that suddenly people are interested in immunology. People with no science background can now hold a conversation about T cells and B cells and different antibodies. That wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.
Early on in the pandemic, when I was talking to people about the risks and benefits of vaccination in pregnancy, the vast majority of people didn’t have an agenda. They simply wanted to make the best decision for themselves and their babies. It was fun and interesting to have these conversations. This time last year, for every unpleasant message I received, I got ten photos of babies from new parents saying thank you for giving me the information I needed to make a decision I felt comfortable with.
The kinds of people I talk to have changed a lot in recent months. Everyone who wanted to be vaccinated has now got the vaccine, so I’m spending more time talking to people who have quite strong pre-conceived notions about vaccines being a bad idea.
I made a very conscious decision early on, that I would rather take the time to talk to ten people who might never agree with me, if there was a chance one of those might be someone who genuinely wanted information. That has informed the whole of my approach.
As a busy researcher, how do you balance the role of carrying out the research, and the equally important role of communicating it?
I’m lucky that I have an enormous amount of support. My family understand that I’m doing something worthwhile, and that it might mean I sometimes spend an evening doing a podcast rather than spending time with them, for example. They have been fantastic in giving me the space and time to get on with it.
My university and funders have also been great. I’m funded by a pre-term birth charity called Borne who have been really supportive. They recognise that ultimately my job is to prevent pre-term births, and that one of the ways I can achieve this is by ensuring people have accurate information about the dangers of COVID-19, and about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
In your experience, what is the key to having a constructive conversation about vaccines with a member of the public who is having doubts?
The first thing I do is to completely liberate myself from the idea that it’s my job to persuade a person to get vaccinated. My job is to make sure they have the information they need to make a decision that they’re happy with, one that’s right for them and their family. This mindset helps open up a two-way conversation.
The second thing is to really listen and find out what it is they need from the conversation. This may sound obvious, but I was speaking to someone who was unsure whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine when she was breastfeeding. I asked her what it was that was holding her back and she explained that she didn’t understand how a vaccine in her arm could protect her whole body. That wasn’t at all what I expected her to be unsure about, and was absolutely something I could help explain!
What would you say to encourage a budding scientist to enter the field of immunology?
I’ve recently started going into schools again after taking a break during the pandemic, and when I talk to children now about vaccines, they immediately know what they are and, in most cases, think they’re a good thing. So in some ways, it’s a much easier sell than it used to be!
Sometimes children have pre-conceived notions about what kind of person can be a scientist, so it’s really important to stress that they can be a scientist no matter their sex, gender, colour or religion, or if they have a disability. Whatever their interests are, there will be a place for them in science. Ultimately, getting this message across will make science a more diverse and welcoming place.
Becoming an immunologist is an opportunity to really make a difference, and we’ve just seen an amazing example of that in vaccine development and managing COVID-19. But there’s more to immunology too – it’s a fascinating puzzle for anyone with an enquiring mind. There are so many moving parts to it, and there’s probably not a challenge like it anywhere else in science.
What future challenges do you see for anyone acting as an ambassador for immunology?
The odds are that I will see another pandemic in my lifetime, and my children will probably see more than one. We’re in a potentially very good situation, in that we have new vaccine platforms and new ways of approaching vaccine trials. We could be entering a golden era of vaccination, but only if people want to get vaccinated. Ambassadors for immunology will have an important role to play in helping people to understand the evidence so they can make informed choices.
Of course, being an ambassador doesn’t necessarily mean dealing with the media – twitter and TV interviews won’t be for everyone. Some people may be more comfortable working with MPs and decision makers, or in partnership with professional bodies. There are many ways someone can be an ambassador, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how different people go about it in the ways that come naturally to them.
The BSI Awards Ceremony was held on 20 April 2023. You can read more about the all the winners of the 2023 BSI Awards here.
Interview conducted by Amy Edmunds.