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BSI Outstanding Ambassador for Immunology: interview with Professor Danny Altmann

Danny Altmann
Professor Danny Altmann

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 Danny about his work demystifying the principles of immunity since the very early days of the pandemic, as well as his more recent work advocating for those with Long Covid. 

(Read our interview with Dr Victoria Male here.)

What does it mean to you to win the BSI Outstanding Ambassador for Immunology award?

The BSI has played a big role in my professional life. I’ve been a member since I was 19 or 20, when I joined in order to hear Rolf Zinkernagel talk at BSI Congress about the work he was doing on how T cells recognise infection. That was the moment I really became hooked on immunology and T cells. These days I try to do my bit to communicate about developments in the field and to be an ambassador, so yes, to win an award like this means a lot.

You worked tirelessly during the pandemic to communicate the science behind COVID-19 to the public via the media. What challenges did this present, and what positives were there? 

It’s been a long journey for all immunologists since December 2019. Before then, I would get maybe half a dozen requests a year for media interviews, but during the pandemic there were times when I was getting 20 or 30 requests a day to do interviews for TV and newspapers around the world. One of the first things you have to do is regulate how much time you spend on it. If I responded to every interview request, I’d have no time for research.

Another challenge is using the right language to communicate in different circumstances. You want to be clear and understandable but not patronising. Some interviews require you to avoid even the most basic scientific terms like ‘virus’ or ‘antibody’, while others want you to go into quite a bit of technical detail. It’s been a learning curve to get that balance right. 

Do you think areas like public engagement, communication, policy and government relations are becoming more integral to the scientist’s role?

Yes, to a huge degree, and for very good reason. As scientists, we’ve always had to fill out that section in grant applications about how we’re going to communicate our work and be answerable to the public, but now I think people realise why they have to really mean it, why they need to do it in spadefuls. 

The pandemic taught us that members of the public really do have an appetite to grasp our research, so why would you not want to respond to that and explain what you do with your days, and the impact it has? 

I remember when there was a lot of debate about whether the UK would adopt legislation on ‘immunity passports’ and that felt to me like a very important time for scientists to speak up. Policy makers were trying to make decisions quickly about quite profound and complex things. Scientists could step in to remind people that different vaccines with different credentials were being used around the world, that immunity wanes and that some people may be unable to mount an immune response at all. There was layer upon layer of complexity and it felt incredibly important to be part of that conversation to avoid bad decisions being made. 

There is a delicate balance to be struck: you want to be a good ambassador and communicator, but not be seen as political or as having an axe to grind. Sometimes your scientific answer might sound quite critical of current policy or advice. All this has, for many immunologists, been new territory. 

Long Covid will continue to be an important topic for years to come, and this is a particular area of interest for you. Is it fair to say you balance two roles here: researcher and advocate? How do you manage that balance? 

Communicating about Long Covid is different in so many ways to the kind of communication we did earlier in the pandemic. Back then, we were all united in our fear and our sense of danger, and everyone was looking to the scientific community for answers. 

Now, a lot of people want to believe the pandemic is over so they can resume normal life, but at the same time we have this persistent chronic disease in Long Covid that is so much harder to grapple with and talk about. The topic has become quite polarising and sometimes toxic, so that my world is now full of rivalries and anger and bitterness. I sometimes feel caught up between the various camps, and the spirit of the debate is very different from that during the acute phase of the pandemic.

At the end of the day, you want to be a good advocate for the science and for the patients, and sometimes that involves saying things that are quite uncomfortable. But we’ve raised the awareness so much already, partly thanks to the BSI and others, and there is so much more appetite now to have a measured conversation about these things. I think that scientists and their achievements are now valued much more than they were, and science correspondents have more clout with their editors to get these stories onto the front pages. This is all progress. 

How do you think your work acting as an ambassador for immunology might evolve in future?

The role is evolving and progressing in ways I never foresaw, and still can’t to some degree. I think we’re in a much better place than we were in terms of lines of communication and having a shared lexicon. There are still challenges, of course – I will still have days where I get deluged with criticism for interpreting a paper in a particular way that upsets a certain group of people. The territory ahead is still quite uncharted but ultimately, more communication is better than less, and I for one look forward to doing more of it.

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.