Cecilia Johansson

Professor of Mucosal Immunology

Cecilia Johansson is a Professor of Mucosal Immunology within the Respiratory Infections Section at the National Heart and Lung Institute.

Complexity attracts

Where I come from there are no scientists, it’s a small place in northern Sweden called Kalix close to the Arctic Circle. It’s a tiny town, very light and nice in the summer and very cold and dark in the winter with lots of snow. I didn't know any scientists growing up - it was not the background that I came from. It was only during my university studies where the idea of being a scientist started to exist as a reality.

I did molecular biology as my undergraduate degree at Umeå University and for the last module we did Immunology. That's when I said “yes, this is what I want to do”. I then moved to Lund University and did an MRes in Immunology and a PhD, which is when I really focused on the interaction of the immune response and pathogens. After that, it was clear that was what I wanted to do. One thing led to another, and I ended up being an academic scientist, but I wasn't a small child dreaming about becoming a scientist. I always liked to find out how things work - but I didn’t have becoming a scientist as a clear goal.

After a postdoc in the US, I started at the National Heart and Lung Institute in 2007 as a postdoc working with Professor Peter Openshaw, then in 2009, I started my group with a fellowship - and now I'm a Professor! I was drawn to immunology because it is just so complex. There are so many things to find out – it’s almost an impossible subject. Immunology is part of absolutely everything when it comes to disease or infections, and I just find that really fascinating.

Why do some people get sick from a respiratory virus while others have no symptoms? We are trying to figure this out.
Mentoring enables other scientists to grow - it’s really part of our job. A bit of your time can make a large impact. 
There are different aspects to your job, but also to life. You need to think about the whole person with all of their hats on. 

Object 1: Lung model

With my research I’m trying to understand why some people get really sick after getting a respiratory virus whilst others aren’t even symptomatic. We are trying to figure out what is the cause of this difference by studying the immunology behind it all. I look at what infection does to the lungs and how lung inflammation is started and regulated. Investigating what the viruses do to the lung and what the immune response does that is good and bad, is important for increasing the understanding of why we can develop severe disease.

I’m basically gathering an overall understanding of how things work. And then if we know how things work, we can start to manipulate this process or look at treatments to effect it. Treatments would be the end product, but my team is doing basic discovery research.

We have done most of our work on respiratory syncytial virus, so that’s RSV, but we're also looking at flu and now obviously, SARS-CoV-2 (responsible for Covid 19) - so we research immune responses to common viruses that are around.

We also consider how age affects our immune responses. With RSV, it's mostly attracted to newborns and the elderly, but we know SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t really impact babies, but can be much more severe in the elderly. So that's another interesting aspect - how does age change our immune responses to viruses?

Object two: Seedling

This represents supervision, tutoring and mentoring. Supervision starts from day one, you begin supervising people in your lab as soon as you get any type of funding and start your lab. And you interact with everyone, from undergraduate students, to postgraduate students, to technicians, to postdocs, so you have a whole range of seniority and people that need different things. That role is all about helping those people to grow as scientists and to fulfil their potential. Then the tutoring and the mentoring comes later, it's something that builds up over your career.

I am part of the mentor scheme at Imperial and then I informally mentor people in my Department and I'm also mentoring for the British Society for Immunology. I think mentoring is really important. There weren't any schemes when I started in academia, but I got informal mentoring from people via networks where I could ask for advice. I'm not sure what I would have done without it. Sometimes you need advice from outside your immediate environment and you need to talk to others about next steps and what to do. So now it's a little bit of giving back. Obviously, I’m helping other people, but I have received that help before so I feel that it's my responsibility to give that back.

If you can give a little bit of your time to help others, that's part of our job. In this job you do massive amounts of things which are ‘extra’ - everything from reviewing papers and grants to organising conferences to mentoring. And it's super important to enable other scientists to grow and for science to work. Yes, it is giving up time, but if you get the sense of helping someone else achieve their goals - that's rewarding.

I think you also need different types of advice, maybe at different times, so it is useful to have a mix of people who you can speak to. Some queries might be more scientific - what is the next step in my career? But it could also be about work life balance - how am I going to have a family and do this? Or how is it to move abroad? You need to talk to people that have that experience. If you say that everyone needs a mentor, we need a lot of mentors! We all need to chip in to help the next generation of scientists, and also to highlight an academic career is not only possible but can be great. You need sometimes need to hear that, because there's a lot of rejection and disappointment over your career.

Object three: Hats (many)

The hats symbolise the different roles you hold in life, and their interplay, which influences you as a person. There are different aspects to any job, but also to life, so you are always wearing many hats. And there are times in your life when different ‘hats’ might take different amount of time or energy. So workwise, you may be a scientist, but then you're also a supervisor, an administrator, a tutor and a teacher. And depending on the daily tasks, you will switch between those different roles, but it's one job. Then if you put your private life on top of that, you add another set of hats or roles - mother, that obviously takes a lot of time. My other roles would also include being a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a house owner, a pet owner etc. Suddenly something happens and for example your parents get sick and need support. And suddenly that ‘hat’ will take much more of your attention. All of these aspects of life are very important and take a bit of time from you, but a different amount at certain times.

I think you need to think about the whole person with all their hats on when you are interacting with someone. Knowing how someone is put together in terms of their life is an important aspect, especially in supervision, to know what really is important to different people and what they have going on in their life. I think acknowledging that is really important.

Lung model
Seedling in porcelain pot
Hat in front of lab equipment

"I am really proud of where I have got to - I’m not your stereotypical Imperial Professor. I'm a non-medic, I'm a woman, and I'm a foreigner. Being that different role model is really nice."

cecilia with her family on a lake

Challenging the stereotype

I have already reached one of my life goals in being appointed as a Professor. If you’d asked me ten years ago I would have said that was what I was aiming for but I'm not even sure I would have dared to say it. Now I'm here, I want to continue. Scientifically there is still so much to find out. I want to continue on this path that science takes you, with the same questions to understand how immune responses to pathogens are making us sick or not. I definitely want to stay in research - that I never see myself giving up.

In the future I’d like to be known as a respected scientist in my field. But I’d also like to be recognised as a good supervisor and mentor, to have trained people that then go on in some science related activity. Those are the two things that drive me forward.

I am really proud of where I have got to - I’m not your stereotypical Imperial Professor. I'm a non-medic, I'm a woman, and I'm a foreigner. Being that different role model is really nice. I've had a lot of comments saying “It’s great that someone like you can make it”. I have kids and I’m not the prototypical academic so it's a different view of the ‘Imperial Professor’. And I'm not alone, which is wonderful, there’s a lot of us. And I think together, we can change the stereotype and open doors for others. It's small steps, but we’ve come a long way. We're not starting on square one, but let’s continue.

Cecilia with students at conference

Getting to know you

Getting opportunities for me or my students or postdocs to present their data, but also hearing about other people’s research, is important. That's why I organise seminars and conference to try to bring people together. Then the other aspect, which is sometimes forgotten, is that it's important for most people to have some social interaction with colleagues. So that could be picnics, or after work drinks, or an afternoon away, for people to talk to each other or maybe talk to me. And it's a little bit about again getting the feeling of the full person, not just the scientist. I think we get a much happier community if we meet a little bit outside of the scientific boundaries to talk about other things. You get to know people on another level. When we create a positive atmosphere, people are more likely to perhaps bring up issues, or they might not even become issues.

 The other thing we try to do is celebrate our successes. There's a lot of papers published, and it becomes just another thing ticked off. But it is so important. And something I think you might forget when you work through the ranks. But a PhD student’s first paper, or even a poster presentation, we should recognise them and celebrate. It is really important people feel valued.

Inspiring young minds

I'm leading on two outreach projects, the Imperial Crest Academy and the Science in Medicine School Teams Prize. The Imperial Crest Academy is a cross Faculty initiative that I run with Dr Simon Foster from Physics. We offer A-level students the chance to get help with an extra curriculum science project. They get assigned a mentor, usually a postdoc from Imperial, that will guide them through their project. And then they go for British Science Association accreditation, that's called Crest Award. We're working with state schools in the London especially the northwest area. At the end we usually have an event where they come and present their work at Imperial. For the Science in Medicine School Teams Prize the students have several streams to choose from, I co-lead this competition with Professor Dorian Haskard . We have groups of A -evel students from anywhere in the UK, that tackle a medical problem, and design a scientific poster. The top ten shortlisted ones give presentations of their work and their posters.

So, my outreach is focused on secondary school kids promoting STEM and trying to make science cool and interesting. We need to really capture the young’s imagination to make them realise that science can be fun - this age group is important. We're giving them the option to try science, and some will like it and some probably not! But that's the whole point and it is something that I really enjoying doing. If they win a poster prize, or if they get the Crest Award, it's good for their CVs when they go to the next stage. They interact with Imperial scientists, especially in the Crest Academy where you actually have a one year commitment. I think it also opens up that Imperial could be an option for these kids that might not have thought about it. So that one comes with a few extra layers of importance for me.

Cecilia talks to school students

Money, the necessary evil

There are many of my generation, friends and colleagues, who decided to have kids, and then that changed everything. They found it difficult to cope working and having a family, because you need that bit of luck. As a scientist you need to have the right people in your lab at that time and have some grants coming. And if that one grant didn't come, then maybe I would have been in a different situation. But I think especially women with family fall off the career path for many reasons. The first fix to it would be cheaper childcare. Because you end up taking your salary and giving it to another person to take care of your child. In Sweden it's very different, none of my friends or family have decided to stay at home. Some of them have changed profession, but all of them are working. Here many of my female friends who had professions before chose to stay with their kids, going back to work 10 years later. I can understand that when financially it's a minus. Having less childcare costs would give more equality. Imperial is helping this - now with shared parental leave, and we're going in all the right directions.

It would also be great if there was an easier funding climate. As a scientist, that’s your lifeline, I don't want to be here if I don't have funding for research. If there was a different funding landscape that would be amazing. So it all comes down to money - I want money for childcare and money for research. I'm not going to be popular with the government!

Snow covered field
Cecilia presenting
Sunset over lake
Item 1 of 3
Snow covered field
Cecilia presenting
Sunset over lake

View our stories now

Blerina in lab


Dr Blerina Ahmetaj-Shala is a BHF Research Fellow within the Cardio-Respiratory Interface Section at the National Heart and Lung Institute.

She talks about her research, teaching and work life balance.

Maike and Salina in lab

Maike and Salina

Maike Haensel and Salina Nicoleau are PhD students at the National Heart and Lung Institute in the Vascular Science Section.

They discuss their research, podcast empowering women and an international outlook.