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CEI at 55: Interview with Editor-in-Chief Professor Leonie Taams

Professor Leonie Taams

This year we’re celebrating the 55th anniversary of the British Society for Immunology’s journal Clinical & Experimental Immunology (CEI), and five years as Editor-in-Chief for Professor Leonie Taams.

Here, Professor Taams reflects on her impressive career and offers her perspectives on the future of CEI and where translational immunology is headed.


Please tell us about yourself and your academic and professional background – what brought you into your research?

I'm originally from the Netherlands where I studied medical biology with an integrated MSc at Utrecht University. I specialised in infection and immunity during my PhD and that's where I started to get very interested in immune regulation in the context of inflammation. During my PhD I presented a poster at a small conference, I think it was called ‘T cell tolerance and apoptosis’, and someone was asking me lots of questions. That person turned out to be Arne Akbar, now President of the BSI! We stayed in touch, and then I did a postdoc with him in London for two years, which I really enjoyed. I went back to Holland for a few years, working in the rheumatology department at Utrecht University Medical Centre, but London was calling! I was very lucky to find a lecturer position at King’s College London in 2003 and I’ve been there ever since.

My lab at King’s is very much interested in the cellular and molecular mechanisms that initiate but also perpetuate and regulate inflammation. A lot of the work we do is in the context of human health and disease; we're particularly interested in inflammatory arthritis for a number of reasons. It’s a disease that affects many millions around the world but, from an immunologist’s perspective, you have good access to the site of inflammation because a considerable number of patients have excess fluid in their joints that needs to be removed as part of their treatment. We can then use this surplus fluid for our research, with the patient’s consent of course. Human inflammation research is often limited to the blood, but studying the immune system at the very site of inflammation means we really have the chance to see what's going on at the affected joint.

Recently, we've become very interested in how the immune system interacts with the nervous system. What is it that causes pain? And why do a significant proportion of people with chronic inflammatory diseases also have depression, anxiety and fatigue? We're not there yet in our own research, but we want to start capturing those aspects more and more.

This is your third formal post with the BSI, having worked with the Society as part of the Congress Committee and as a Trustee. How did you get involved with the Society?

I was originally a member of the Dutch Society of Immunology, so I understood the importance of learned societies already. When I came to London to work with Arne, he – like many other PIs in the country – took his whole lab to the BSI Congress. There I had the opportunity to give an oral presentation and to mingle of course, and I realised what a great Society it was.

I continued my involvement with the BSI, I went to all the conferences, and then I saw that a position on the Congress Committee was up for nominations. I was on the Congress Committee for 10 years, first as a General Member and then as Secretary, and I was also a Trustee for some years – so a long history! When the position of Clinical & Experimental Immunology Editor-in-Chief was highlighted to me, I immediately knew I was interested but I wasn't sure whether I would get it with my relatively limited editorial experience at that point. But I applied, interviewed and was offered the position.

CEI is part of a family of journals owned and managed by the BSI. How important is it to you to edit a Society journal? What else attracted you to CEI?

The BSI is a Society that offers so many opportunities for showcasing immunology research – at BSI Regional and Affinity Group meetings, annual conferences – but also opportunities for your professional development. It helps us stay in touch with friends and colleagues. I really value the fact that CEI is a Society journal because it allows members to be involved in the whole publishing process – by submitting their manuscripts, acting as a reviewer, guest editing a Review Series, and many other ways. And of course, income from the journal supports the activities of the BSI. So for me, working for CEI is also about giving back to the Society.

Editing this journal is also very relevant to my career, as I’ve become more and more translational in my work. I appreciate the challenges that come with translational research. New technologies have helped us to do increasingly insightful research, because we can do so much more with very small samples. When I started as Editor-in-Chief five years ago, that wasn’t the case as much. I think having an Editor-in-Chief who appreciates the challenges but also the opportunities that human immunology research can offer is key.

Last year CEI received over 600 submissions of original research and review articles. How do you fit CEI work into your busy schedule and what does a typical week of an EiC look like?

In a sentence: it’s not a one-person job. It certainly takes discipline, commitment and some long hours, yes, but also the support of the brilliant Section Editors and the BSI editorial team.

In a typical week, I do the initial review of around 15 manuscripts which involves seeing if they fit the scope of CEI and if they meet the expected level of quality in the data and presentation. If the manuscript passes my initial review, I assign them to the relevant Section Editors and they do a thorough review to decide if these papers should go out to peer review. We have six specialist sections – autoimmunity, cancer immunity, immune-mediated inflammatory diseases, immunodeficiency, infectious diseases and vaccines, and neuroimmunology – but any papers that don’t fit within those sections can still be handled among us or by one of our general Editorial Board members.

Our move in 2020 to dedicated Section Editors has allowed me to assign papers much better. Even if there happens to be more papers in a particular area one week, I still feel it's appropriate to assign them all to that particular Section Editor, because that really is their field of expertise. Authors appreciate knowing that their manuscript is being handled by an expert in their field. It also gives the Section Editors a greater sense of autonomy in deciding what they want their section to look like.

We’re a little busier at the moment due to our transition to a new publisher, Oxford University Press, but it’s a very exciting period for the journal.

Our last careers survey revealed that fewer than 4% of women in immunology are at professorial level compared with 15% of men. Have you experienced any challenges as a woman reaching the top levels of science?

I feel that we should work hard to understand what causes this difference. As I understand it, in the field of immunology there are more women than men at a postdoc/PhD level, whereas in more senior positions, the number of men exceeds the number of women – the gender balance is skewed one way in early careers and then the other way in later careers. We still need to investigate and understand all the different factors that lead to this change in demographics.

I always like to think that I didn’t experience any major challenges as a woman in science – I've not encountered obvious situations where I felt I was held back, and most of my male mentors have been extremely supportive. But on the other hand, I've been quite involved in Athena SWAN and various women in science events and I’ve heard about the challenges that other women have faced. I recently read and highly recommend Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It’s a highly researched book which exposes the gender data bias and it made me realise that even if you have not experienced specific challenges, consciously or subconsciously you may have adjusted your expectations or aspirations, purely because of working in environments where leadership was, by and large, dominated by male scientists.

I think it’s so important that we have diversity at all levels, including senior levels, because that is often where decisions are made and where the role model sits. I hope I’ve contributed in some small part to the many, many wonderful examples that we now have in our women scientists, and I hope that it inspires women, particularly at the beginning of their career.

What would you say to women in their early career considering their future in academia?

If women are considering whether they should continue in academia, I would say don’t make that decision in isolation – talk to someone and be open about it. Be proactive about it, discuss your ambitions and aspirations. You should feel confident in knowing what you can offer, but also giving yourself time to develop in new areas – don’t look at the list of things you can’t do, but at the list of things you can contribute, and then identify the things you could master with a bit of help and support. Seek out some good leadership courses (they can really open your mind) and seek good mentors too. Mentorship can take any shape or form; it doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. Lots of people have mentored me without them ever realising!

The BSI is due to publish a new strategy to champion equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) in immunology. What opportunities do you see to advance ED&I in scientific publishing?

I think it's important that Editorial Boards are balanced and inclusive of all aspects of diversity – not just gender. At Clinical & Experimental Immunology we have been working towards greater equality and diversity. During my time as Editor-in-Chief we've grown to eight Section Editors; four men and four women across the globe. Plus, each Section Editor has their own Section Editorial Board where we are working towards achieving gender balance as well as good geographical spread so that we can better understand the different challenges and opportunities in a particular part of the world. There are still many further opportunities for ED&I in publishing, like in every aspect of life, and we should always keep our minds open and improve where we can.

Reflecting on 55 years of immunology research published in this journal, there have been so many advances that have massively impacted the field. Are there any breakthroughs that particularly stand out to you?

I don't think it is possible to name one specific breakthrough; there are so many. I think it's the ever-advancing technologies that lead to the translation of an original discovery. A recent example is of course the development of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines – advances in molecular biology, clinical trials and understanding the immunology behind vaccination has allowed scientists to rapidly come up with a vaccine.

Another example would be the development of antibody-based therapies. A prime example of this type of biologic therapy is anti-TNF (the first biologic drug to be introduced for rheumatoid arthritis) and now you see the vast array of antibodies available to treat autoimmune disorders, allergies, inflammatory diseases, cancer and infection.

All these breakthroughs start with very basic science. They start for instance with understanding what an antibody looks like and how you can engineer an antibody. It's the application of basic knowledge that finally leads to real advances in fighting disease, which links very nicely with the scope of our journal.

CEI’s aims and scope reflect the increasing opportunities to study the immunological basis of human disease, driven by both technological and clinical advances. What type of research do you expect to see more of in the next few years?

As I alluded to at the beginning, in vivo human immunology is an area of continuous growth. Because of the advances in single-cell technologies, tissue imaging, spatial transcriptomics, I think we’ll be better able to decipher the immune system in human tissues. I think experimental medicine will play a growing role and I expect to see more mechanistic studies of treatments for human disease, and these studies will be increasingly human rather than animal based.

The increasingly precise study of immunodeficiencies will provide more insights into the basic functioning of the immune system. And COVID-19 research will continue – not only to understand the immunology of SARS-CoV-2 infection and disease but also to reveal more about the basic immunology and ensure our preparedness in the event of another epidemic or pandemic.

The end of this year marks your fifth year as Editor-in-Chief. During this time, CEI has updated its vision and scope and continued to strengthen its position as a highly-respected journal in the field of immunology. Have you been able to make all the changes you set out to when you took over the editorship?

We’ve certainly covered a lot of ground. It’s important to mention that CEI is a broad journal – if you look at one of our monthly issues, you see that we cover a broad range of subjects in many different disease areas. When I took over as Editor, I really wanted to ensure that we had the breadth of editorial expertise to adequately but also rapidly review this range of papers. We’ve recruited four new Section Editors to join our team, bringing with them expertise in new facets of translational immunology.

We also introduced regular Review Series to highlight and discuss specific topics in depth. These series often start with our Section Editors, who each work with their Section Editorial Board to brainstorm ideas for new series and recruit guest editors to lead them.

We've built strong relationships with the Editors of our sibling journals, Immunotherapy Advances and Immunology, and with other societies. A prime example is the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies (FOCIS) with whom we have a strong partnership around our scientific conferences – the FOCIS Annual Meeting and BSI Congress.

We continue to receive high numbers of submissions from across the globe. In recent years the editorial and communications teams at the BSI have also grown – their hard work and expertise is instrumental for the success of the journal.

Considering the vast changes ongoing in the publishing industry, do you see any challenges ahead for CEI?

We’re celebrating our 55th anniversary, so we have built substantial experience. We’re a very trusted and reliable journal and we’ll continue to navigate the sometimes-rocky waters of the publishing landscape. We’re a hybrid journal so we offer and support Open Access publishing, and this ensures that important work can be shared with and read by all interested parties. Open Access is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. That is why we do science: to generate, share and celebrate new knowledge in order to improve the health of society and make the world a better place.

What are you hoping to achieve over the next few years?

I would like to see even more immunologists consider Clinical & Experimental Immunology as their journal of choice when submitting their translational immunology manuscripts. We have a highly experienced team of Editors, a fast decision time and an in-house editorial and marketing team at the BSI. And of course, the success of the journal feeds back into the Society's mission to drive scientific discovery and improve health. If you have a good translational immunology paper, please do consider submitting to Clinical & Experimental Immunology.

You can read more about Clinical & Experimental Immunology’s 55th anniversary celebrations in our news section.