Meet our Staff & Students

Dr Alex Spencer, Post-doctoral Researcher

Dr Alex Spencer

How is your typical working day?

My mornings are usually spent processing samples and setting up experiments to identify ways to improve the immune responses to our candidate malaria vaccines, and at the same time trying to understand the body's natural immune response to the liver-stage of malaria. This means that my afternoon can be spent analysing data and writing papers/reports. We have a weekly lab meeting and there are numerous seminars nearby on a wide variety of topics to keep the mind buzzing.

The most enjoyable aspect of your work?

My favourite part of an experiment is analysing the data as this always opens up interesting questions to answer in the next experiment.

And the most difficult?

Trying to keep my head around all the different projects I am involved in and those of the students I supervise.

The biggest challenge you have faced so far?

Project milestones – the Grand Challenge project has many milestones and deadlines that need to be met. But I prefer to be busy and I love the challenge of having to get an experiment done by a particular date.

Any advice for potential applicants?

Get involved – with the wide variety in work, projects and people at the Jenner there is always something different going on both at work and socially.

Dr Sandy Douglas, Academic Clinician

Dr Sandy Douglas

How is your typical working day?

It usually starts slowly with coffee and email before eventually getting more productive... the lab-work itself is a mixture of molecular biology, which is making the vaccines using various forms of DNA cloning, some parasitology, and of course immunology, ie. testing whether the vaccines work!

Some of this is quite routine, but frequently I'll be working with a new technique which requires development and trouble-shooting. On top of this, I'll often have a meeting with my group to discuss ongoing work, or there will be a seminar by a visiting speaker.

The most enjoyable aspect of your work? I love being able to take an idea which has arisen from something abstract - for example, a bit of basic parasitological data in a paper I've read - and use it to design, construct, and test my own vaccines which could ultimately go into clinical trials.

I think that many clinicians, like myself, are keen to do research which has the potential for 'real world benefit', and I think this fits in well with the lab's pragmatic ethos. Many researchers talk about 'translational science'- not many people actually work in an environment which is set up to allow translation from idea to clinic within a few years.

Flexibility and freedom have been further hugely positive aspects - both intellectual freedom to think creatively, and freedom to manage my own time at work (and time off) have been a breath of fresh air after the pressure of NHS foundation jobs!

And the most difficult? Keeping on top of multiple different projects, prioritising the important things and recognising the ideas which aren't worth spending time on.

Any advice for potential applicants? Go for it! The Jenner is a large Institute spanning a wide range of work, and it's quite important to end up working on a project which is a good fit with your own interests and outlook.

Think about what interests you within the area of vaccinology. Do you want to design new interventions and test them pre-clinically? Or do you want to try to gain a better understanding of how the human immune system reacts to vaccines? Are you interested in a particular disease? Read some papers written by the different investigators in the Jenner. Once you've found someone doing work that interests you, get in touch, preferably with a CV.

Dr Katie Ewer, Senior Immunologist

Dr Katie Ewer

How is your typical working day? My day typically involves a mixture of project management, data analysis and experimental lab work. The proportions vary all the time, which is great as it means that no two days are ever the same. My favourite days are those spent at the bench as that’s where I’m most at home, although these days I often don’t get to see the result of an experiment until I’ve spent a couple of hours analysing the data. My own research aims to define vaccine induced correlates of protection for malaria and an efficacy trial can run for several months.

The most enjoyable aspect of your work? I really enjoy the variety within my role. My main responsibility is overseeing the immunology on the malaria vaccine trials, but I also have my own research programme to focus on and collaborations with research groups all over the world. I also take great pride in knowing that the vaccines we develop could make a real impact on the global burden of malaria and its great motivation.

And the most difficult? The most difficult thing is keeping up with developments in every project as things move forward so quickly. It’s really important to make sure that all the projects stay on track and resolve difficulties as soon as possible.

The biggest challenge you have faced so far? The biggest challenge is organising the immunology for the African field trial sites. It can be tricky to manage things from 2700 miles away! But it’s also very satisfying to get the immunology data back from these field trials showing that our vaccines could really be deployed there one day.

Any advice for potential applicants? Do lots of reading about our previous research and think carefully about what really drives you to want to work here. Finally, do apply as it’s a brilliant place to work and you can really ‘make a difference’ by working here.

Arjan van Laarhoven, internship student Jan-July 2010

Dr Tess Lambe and Arjan van Laarhoven

How is your typical working day? It involved lots of hands-on lab work, most of which my direct supervisor (Teresa Lambe, PhD, on the picture left) taught me. There was enough time to catch up with the literature on ‘flu and T-cell vaccines as well. Further into the internship the balances shifted to data-analysis. The Jenner is a social lab, and students working on various other topics showed me their techniques and we exchanged successes and failures. Tea shouldn’t be omitted here: there’s plenty of it, with plenty of interaction over tea.

The most enjoyable aspect of your work? I enjoyed designing and performing experiments under good and not too close supervision, then analysing and discussing the data. Also, I very much enjoyed the interaction with colleagues, not only over tea, but also outside the lab. Oxford spoils you with parties, theatre and rowing, and many nice people.

And the most difficult? The hardest part is to restrain yourself, because everything is interesting. My supervisor was invaluable also for this, because the ability to pick the right questions definitely comes with experience only.

How has the experience been useful to your studies? Doing research helps tremendously in understanding other’s research, and that’s important in keeping up on medical knowledge. Moreover, it taught me again that research should preferably be part of my future career.

What are your plans after graduating? Become a skilled research-minded clinical doctor! After graduation at Utrecht University, I worked as a resident in a teaching hospital (Sint Antonius Hospital, Nieuwegein). Now I’ve started my PhD on TB Innate Immunity at the Radboud University in the group of Mihai Netea and Reinout van Crevel. We study co-evolution of Mycobacterium tuberculosis with the humane innate immune system in the lab in Nijmegen as well as in the Indonesian archipelago where huge variation exists in both humans and the M. tuberculosis strains they are infected with. Moreover, I was happy to qualify for a specialisation in Medicine, so the coming years I’ll alternate between clinic and lab.

Any advice for potential applicants? Inform yourself well on what’s possible and think about what you could add, try to get in touch and persist, working at the Jenner is worth it!

Prof Adrian Hill, Director and Programme Leader, Malaria Programme

Podcast interview

Prof Helen McShane, Programme Leader, Human TB Programme

Podcast interview