Thursday, April 17, 2014

Advice from Nobel Prize Laureate Peter Doherty

This photo was taken about eight years ago when I met Professor Doherty at a book signing. He very good-naturedly posed for a photo, possibly for the 50,000th time that day. (Mind you, how does he manage to look so relaxed and professional while I look like "Nerdsville: Population - Anne"? I think its the backpack full of library books).
It isn’t every day that one gets to converse with a Nobel laureate, but I had the opportunity to interview immunologist, author and Nobel prize-winner Peter Doherty this week for The Veterinarian Magazine

Professor Doherty has a long-standing interested in infectious diseases and zoonoses (diseases that can be transmitted between humans and animals). He is also passionate about pandemics (understanding and preventing them, that is).

In July this year he will be addressing the AustralasianSociety for Infectious Diseases (ASID) Zoonoses Conference.

Professor Doherty trained as a veterinarian then did an MVSc at the University of Queensland and worked as a veterinary officer before moving to Scotland to pursue a PhD at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.

In 1996, Professor Doherty and colleague RolfZinkernagel (Switzerland) shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the way the immune system recognises virus-infected cells.

Professor Doherty has over 20 honorary degrees and has published 397 peer-reviewed papers. (I had to change the toner in my printer just to print his CV!!!)

As I learned in his biography, “The Beginner’s Guide toWinning the Nobel Prize: a Life in Science”, with big prizes come huge responsibilities. Dinners with prime ministers and dignatories, public lectures, school visits, honorary degrees. In 1997 he became Australian of the Year, a title which came with more responsibilities. In addition to that Professor Doherty continues to read and write about immunology and infectious disease, including most recently “Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know” and “Sentinel Chickens: What Birds Tell Us About OurHealth and The World”.

Sadly, Professor Doherty doesn’t currently have pets as commuting across the world and working as a tireless ambassador for science requires too much time away from home to make it work, but he did have some great advice for veterinarians, vet students and scientists: TALK ABOUT SCIENCE. You don't need a Nobel Prize to do it (and - not his words mind you - if we all did our bit, it might give the actual Nobel Prize winners the odd moment off to tend to their houseplants and get to the supermarket).

Science can only work well when people are convinced of its value, and we are ethically charged with the duty of promoting science. Particularly when the science sector is facing challenges from every which way.

Vets need to think of themselves as scientists…there are so few people in the community who have real scientific training. By that I mean taking an evidence based view of the world, not just belief. Anyone that deals with diagnosis has to take evidence based view…they have to be good observers and come to rational based conclusion.

Everyone who has got some sort of science training – and I keep saying this when I talk to professional groups – can be an ambassador. Learn how to talk about it in simple and clear terms, talk about it at school board meetings, stick up for science, and try to explain to people how things work.

Clear communication about the risks and the risk perception around infectious diseases can be particularly important. Needlessly scaring the socks off people can lead to harmful consequences, while failing to inform them can have just as dire consequences. 

Professor Doherty is also passionate about citizenscience

The citizen science movement…is powerful. Vets might think about that in terms of getting citizens involved in observations that are important. We’re already seeing citizen science working with the bird community, looking at beaches, marine animals and pollution. If you can get people organised – they all have cell phones with cameras – they can collect data. We need to involve people, not tell people. We not to stop lecturing and start involving, if we can do that will do a lot better job of communication.

If you’d like to hear more about Professor Doherty’s concerns about zoonotic diseases, sign up for the ASID conference in July.

You can register, and read about the 2012 Zoonoses Conference, here.