No stranger to trailblazers, the Department of Infectious Disease had a strong presence at the 2022 Great Exhibition Road Festival.
Exhibition Road and the surrounding streets were bedecked with stalls and stands once again as the Great Exhibition Road Festival returned to South Kensington for a celebration of cutting-edge research and culture. Taking place over Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 June, the Great Exhibition Road Festival brought Imperial College London together with South Kensington’s museums, the Royal Colleges and other cultural institutions to engage the public with the latest and greatest and the weird and wonderful of science, technology, medicine and art.
The theme of this year’s festival was “Trailblazers”—a fitting message and invitation to celebrate the individuals and communities working together to change our world for the better. Amongst them, several members of the Department of Infectious Disease provided a showcase of their research.
Fighting pathogens and exploring the COVID-19 Human Challenge Study
Two talks were delivered by members of the Department and were well-attended on their respective days of the Festival. On Saturday, Dr John Tregoning, from the Section of Immunology of Infection, delivered a talk titled “Infectious: Pathogens and how we fight them”. He started by sharing how he came to write a non-fiction popular science book and how the phrase “popular science” acquired new meaning once the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The talk was littered with examples of infectious disease trailblazers from history, including Florence Nightingale, Edward Jenner and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. The take-home message was that nature is—in a myriad of ways—trying to kill us, but that thankfully vaccines work. Despite Louis Pasteur’s outlook that nature and pathogens will have the final word, Dr Tregoning has a more optimistic outlook for our species’ survival and ever-continuing fight against pathogens.
You can listen to more on this topic in the podcast interview below.
On day two of the festival, we also got an illuminating behind-the-scenes look at the COVID-19 Human Challenge Study led by Professor Christopher Chiu. The study sought to develop our understanding of the novel coronavirus at an uncertain time and provided several key insights into infection, including that lateral flow tests reliably measure when an individual infected with COVID-19 becomes non-infectious.
Audience members were asked to vote at the beginning and end of the talk on the question, “Would you sign up for a challenge study if invited?” Remarkably, from roughly one-third of audience members voting ‘Yes’, this jumped to over half of all audience members voting ‘Yes’ unequivocally after hearing from the panel of experts as well as three study volunteers. The study volunteers also offered a take-home tip for anyone hoping to take part in future challenge studies: only pack what you will absolutely use, but make sure that includes plenty of layers.
Additionally, in honour of June being Pride month, a series of talks hosted in the V&A Museum titled “Pride of Exhibition Road” featured two members from the Department, James Kavanagh and Kailash Ramlaul. In their panel discussion “Pride of Imperial: Being LGBTQ+ in science and the experience of queer joy”, they talked about their experiences as LGBTQ+ people in STEM, and offered insights on how higher education institutions can do more for prospective LGBTQ+ students and staff.
Marvels of Medicine
In celebration of the Faculty of Medicine’s 25th anniversary was the aptly named “Medical Marvel Zone” in the Sir Alexander Fleming Building, where the Department of Infectious Disease captured the curiosity of visitors to the Festival with display stands and interactive games.
At the “Is it malaria? The Diagnosis Game”, Dr Aubrey Cunnington, Dr Stephanie Menikou and Dr Athina Georgiadou, from the Department’s Section of Paediatric Infectious Disease, engaged visitors to learn about diagnostic tools which are used to identify the kinds of pathogens causing illness in patients. Visitors could also try their hand at playing a “diagnosis game”: using a bedside test to establish a malaria diagnosis, visitors learned how to ensure patients receive the most appropriate treatment targeted correctly towards the pathogen making them ill.
Over in the Families Zone, with the help of Dr Yu Wan and Emily Conibear, from the NIHR HPRU in Healthcare Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), visitors learnt how antibiotics are lifesaving but can only work against bacteria and not against other pathogens like viruses, and how over-prescribing and a wide range of other factors can lead to AMR.
Similarly, at the Institute of Infection’s “Microbes: The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful” exhibit, Professor Charles Bangham, Sally Christmas and Mayah Pico engaged visitors to learn about different bacteria as well as play a “balancing game” to learn how microbes and our immune system work for and against one another to try to reach a balance.
Continuing the focus on immunity and health, the MRC CMBI team explained to visitors how they use fruit flies as model organisms to study how the human immune system protects us from infections at the “Bugs and Drugs” exhibit in the Science Museum's Medicine Galleries. Visitors got to experience hands-on how to run DNA gel, use microscopes and play an “inject-the-fly” game.
Shifting the lens to vaccines and immunity, another interactive game could be found at the “Test Your Vaccine Knowledge” stand hosted by the Imperial Network for Vaccine Research, where visitors tested their understanding of vaccines and medical interventions throughout history.
Also featuring along this theme in the Medical Marvels zone was the Lymph nodE single-cell Genomics AnCestrY (LEGACY) Network, with the lead investigator Dr Katrina Pollock. The Network aims to use single-cell approaches to understanding vaccine immune responses in diverse populations, an unprecedented undertaking which would lead to vastly improved understanding of immune responses to vaccines, now and in the future.
A festival for all
The Festival was a huge success for the Department of Infectious Disease, not just for the trailblazers paving the way forward in their respective research areas, but also for the students and staff who volunteered to help run other stalls and activities aimed at capturing the imagination and inspiring future generations of scientists.
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Department of Infectious Disease
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