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Understanding the Mechanisms of Streptococcal Infection and Disease

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Credit: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London.
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Professor Shiranee Sriskandan is a Clinical Professor of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London. She leads a team focused on the mechanisms by which streptococcal infections cause serious disease. As well as her research work, Professor Sriskandan undertakes teaching within the University and is also a medic at Hammersmith Hospital.

Q: How did your interest in science originate? Were there any role models that inspired your career?

A: Despite being a biologist now, I was more fascinated by the prospect of space science as a child; I kept a scrapbook of missions and at one point started a correspondence with NASA (largely but not entirely one way).  At school, I really enjoyed biology, but it seemed as though there was an awful lot to learn, while I was quicker to get to grips with physics and maths, possibly encouraged by my dad who was an engineer, a bridge designer. However, at the time I didn’t know anyone else reading engineering, or physics; like most people at that age, my role models were my teachers and immediate family. My brother had done Medicine, and I increasingly began to think that I could do so too. Siblings can be subliminally very influential.  I was fortunate in getting into Cambridge and had the opportunity to learn about medical sciences in an environment that encouraged learning by questioning and research. However, after qualifying, you quickly get drawn into the long hours, patients, ward rounds, choosing a speciality, and it is too easy to forget about academic research. 

Q: As a medic, what spurred you on to pursue scientific research?

A: I think the major drive to pursuing a scientific career, was my choice of speciality, infectious diseases. It seemed like the perfect clinical multi-system speciality, with all types of patient. Problematically there were virtually no NHS jobs in the field, so the only career path was to either have a university position or one's own fellowship. This meant research training. So, to be brutally honest, it wasn't that I had a burning desire to do research at that time; it was more that I had a burning desire to be an infectious diseases physician!  I was however lucky to get a clinical post at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School where research training was almost expected. All of the doctors and scientists there seemed to be either involved in or planning to embark on research careers, and together they were an inspiring bunch. There seemed to be a good relationship between the non-clinical and clinical academics that I enjoyed as well, although in retrospect I wonder if the emphasis on clinician scientists had unforeseen consequences for the non-clinical academics. I decided to be guided by my consultant at the time, Jon Cohen, who encouraged me to go and read about bacterial sepsis mechanisms. I think if anyone set me on the track I am now, it is Jon, as he was always encouraging, and was not afraid of starting up an entirely new research area. I was awarded an MRC Fellowship to train with Jon, and then two further fellowships thereafter.  

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your current role?

A: I lead my own research group, focussed on group A streptococcus.  Most of our research questions arise out of epidemiological or clinical questions that have arisen about pathogenicity, such as "why has that strain emerged in the population so rapidly?" or "why did that patient get ill so quickly?" Almost everyone is researching some aspect of group A streptococcus pathogenicity, though the projects are non-overlapping. Some of our research is partnered with Public Health England, focussing on aspects of antimicrobial resistance and healthcare associated infection, as one of 12 Health Protection Research Units.   Although most of my time is devoted to running the group, students, funding applications, and publishing papers (well, submitting them...), I do teach for the University, and also contribute to clinical guidelines and patient support. I am still an Infectious Diseases physician and really enjoy my months on clinical service; the range of cases we see never ceases to amaze, and there is a steady flow of excellent clinical trainees who are occasionally persuaded to take time out for research.

Q: What achievements, discoveries or publications are you most proud of?

A: I think the discovery of a bacterial enzyme that can cleave all neutrophil-active chemokines is still my favourite. What makes me proud, is, firstly, that the discovery was unlikely to have happened without a simple clinical pathological observation which was, that patients who tragically died from group A strep demonstrated a very limited influx of inflammatory white blood cells at the site of infection. You needed to be asking the right question to find this enzyme's activity, i.e. why were there no white blood cells?  Secondly, the whole project was entirely un-funded, yet it involved all sorts of people over a period of 10-11 years, from pathologists, to BSc students, to colleagues in protein chemistry who eventually managed to purify the mystery protease, that we called SpyCEP. 

Q: What do you think could be done to encourage more women into science?

A: We need to reassure our daughters and daughters in law that it's OK to have a career even after having children.  There is no shortage of women entering biological sciences, but there is a shortage of women remaining.  We can try very hard to ease the return to work (and can do much more) but society places great pressure on women to spend a long time out of science if they have children. This pressure is exerted in many ways through peer-pressure from friends and in-laws.  The other aspect is the cut throat career structure in academia; only those with highly competitive Fellowships can survive and the career post-doctoral scientist is sneered at. This is not a problem just for women but for everyone; it would be great to find a solution to keep all types of skilled academic scientist in science.

Professor Shiranee Sriskandan was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.