Originally posted on 100 Scientists of Malaysia Facebook page on 11 Feb 2020, reposted here for my personal archive.
I research the flu virus – Influenza A. There are 4 types of influenza virus: A, B, C, and D. Influenza A and B are the ones that commonly infect people. Winter (or from December to March in Northern Hemisphere, but not that viruses have a schedule for when they want to infect you anyway) is when they usually hit, so get vaccinated!
Flu A has pandemic potential, responsible for major pandemics with the most recent one being the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak. Interestingly, people don’t actually die from the influenza virus itself. It’s what happens after. Your body tries to fight back, but the immune system goes out of control, especially when secondary bacterial infection also joins the battleground. While we have vaccines for flu A (and flu B), and they are protective, we are having problems with variable effectiveness. People do still get sick even though vaccinated, although symptoms are less severe. Furthermore, it is recommended to get the flu vaccine annually to be protected in each flu/winter season. For my research, I seek to understand why and how flu vaccines fail. This is an incremental take on realizing the dream of a universal influenza vaccine, that is, one influenza vaccine regiment that could provide long-lasting protection.
For other vaccine-preventable diseases (Rubella, HPV, hepatitis, etc), a single vaccine administration or vaccine-boost regiment could provide long-term protection, ranging from decades to lifetime. However, influenza A viruses are a different beast altogether. They mutate so fast. As a consequence, health agencies have to keep track on their evolution and predict which one that would cause problem in the coming years, hoping that the newly formulated vaccine could provide protection (they do, but with variable effectiveness).
I am interested in studying their evolution in human population and there is one concept I always find myself in awe of: immune evasion. In simpler words, how these viruses can evade the force mounted by the immune system by mutating the appearance to a point that the body can no longer recognize it. Then the viruses spread. A cycle repeats without an end in sight. Yet, under the premise of the universal influenza vaccine, we could figure out how to better train our immune system to fight them even though these viruses keep changing “color”.
Doctoral training is a vehicle, or so I have been taught. While it comes with merit in the form of societal recognition upon the completion (and submission) of the dissertation, this training has taught me several key concepts in life. In particular, how to ask a question scientifically, how to design an experiment to approach the aforementioned question, how to leverage tools & technologies efficiently to answer them, and what to make out of the data. A professor once told me “90% of your experiment either did not work or the data do not make sense, but these failures are informative at telling you what not to do”. I have been taught that failure is a success and is not much less than that. Well, at least a failure that was preceded by a well laid-out plan.
Yesteryear has been filled with me accepting what the textbook says. Tomorrow and forevermore will be filled by the ink penning the textbook from the discoveries I conjure with my own hands & perseverance. Start thinking, start asking questions, start approaching them elegantly, and tell great stories from those encounters.
A PhD is not strictly necessary to ask great questions. It is a vehicle. Great questions are the product of immense curiousity augmented by willpower.