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Dr Samantha Lycett

Dr Samantha Lycett

Dr Samantha Lycett, Chancellors Fellow at the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, is using genetic sequence data to track and predict outbreaks of infectious diseases.

I worked in physics and radar signal processing for several years before I came to computational biology. I designed an algorithm for a radar to detect small objects on runways, and we created a system that was installed at airports. I realised I liked finding signals in data and thought it would be interesting to apply algorithms to the problems of infectious diseases – both subjects are about detection, tracking and prediction – so I made the move into research.

Viruses and bacteria have DNA (or in some cases RNA) genomes which mutate rapidly. I use genetic sequence data to study pathogen spread and evolution, particularly in fast-evolving viruses, such as influenza. It enables us to trace the origins of an outbreak and help predict how and where it might spread. Our work on the 2014 bird flu pandemic used gene sequence data to understand the outbreaks were coming from Asia and being spread through wild bird populations. Because we knew it was coming, the government was able to issue advice to keep domestic flocks indoors, and so the UK didn’t suffer in the same way as many other countries.

We were lucky that although the 2009 swine flu outbreak was big, it was a mild strain. At the moment, I’m working to harness pathogen sequence data and combine it with other data, such as trade and travel patterns, so we can stay one step ahead of the next big outbreak. It will also enable us to potentially start predicting how viruses might evolve in the future so that we can then choose appropriate drugs or vaccines to prevent viruses developing into super-virulent strains.

Signal processing was a very male-dominated field – at times I was the only woman in a team of 50 – but it was never a problem. At the Roslin Institute there’s an equal split of men and women, and that’s the case at every level, which is great. One of the good things about tracking infectious diseases is that by their very nature you are working with people all over the world and in different fields. It’s an exciting field to work in.

Computational skills are absolutely key in my line of work. There are now lots of tutorials online where you can download data and start looking at those computational problems. But children can get started with coding, too – from the age of 10, I would program maze games on the computer that my sister and I would then play.