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19 Mar 2021

Meet the team: Dr Bridie Clemens

Dr Bridie Clemens is investigating immunity to influenza in Indigenous Australians.

Can you introduce yourself and your role at the Doherty Institute?

I’m a postdoctoral fellow in the Kedzierska Laboratory in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. My work in the Kedzierska Laboratory focuses on understanding immunity to influenza in Indigenous Australians, a group that, like other Indigenous populations worldwide, is at high-risk of severe infection. We have provided the first data on influenza-specific T cell immunity in the Indigenous Australian population and we are continuing to characterise the specific targets of T cell responses in this population. This will help the design of influenza vaccines that provide better protection for Indigenous Australians.

Your research into characterising protective immune responses in Indigenous Australian populations is the first of its kind for Indigenous populations globally. Can you tell us more about this?

Indigenous populations worldwide are at greater risk of severe influenza disease. The reasons behind this higher influenza burden remain unclear but highlight the need to improve Indigenous health and protocols to protect Indigenous populations from severe influenza infections. As recovery from influenza depends on the body’s ability to mobilise multiple arms of the immune system, a comprehensive understanding the immune response in Indigenous people is needed. Very little is known about immune responses to influenza in Indigenous populations, in part due to a lack of tools to study distinct response profiles across different ethnicities. In order to investigate immunity to influenza in Indigenous Australians, we have collaborated with the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin to recruit Indigenous Australians from the Northern Territory into the LIFT (Looking Into inFluenza T-cell immunity) cohort. These participants, from various communities in the Top End, donated blood samples which are used by us to comprehensively examine immune and genetic factors that can contribute to disease severity. Using this unique and valuable cohort, we have been able to define the landscape of T and B cell immunity to influenza in Indigenous Australians and identified new targets of T cell immunity. Together, this has shed light on the relationship between immunity and disease susceptibility in this vulnerable community and helped define how to prime effective immunity.

What originally attracted you to the field of science and influenza research?

Growing up I always had a keen interest in science and research. I was one of those kids who had a dead insect collection, wandered around finding interesting leaves and seeds, recorded “Quantum” on ABC TV every Wednesday night and asked Santa for a microscope. In my early primary years, my best friend at school became seriously ill with leukeamia and through that experience I began to appreciate the role of the immune system and the incredible medical interventions that enabled her to recover. I feel that I was lucky from early on to have a clear idea of what I enjoyed and wanted to do. It gave me purpose and allowed me to set goals that I enjoyed working towards. During my undergraduate studies I developed a strong interest in immunity to viruses and vaccines. I was fascinated by the complexity and ingenuity of it all and wanted to combine my interests with something that I felt would help people and maybe make a difference in the world. My honours project introduced me to influenza research and I was so lucky to have wonderful supervisors and experience a fabulous research environment. That year really set me up with a passion for research in viral immunology which carried through my PhD studies and post-doctoral work. I still feel enormous satisfaction from my work. It’s a bit like solving a big complex puzzle, one piece at a time and knowing that each piece goes towards protecting the health and wellbeing of people. I have been fortunate in my career to have wonderful supervisors and mentors who have provided me with incredible opportunities. I truly feel lucky to be able to do this job!

What does a typical day at the Doherty Institute look like for you?

My typical workday has changed considerably over the past years as I have gone from full-time to part-time work after having two kids, working from home and now transitioning back into the workplace. When in the lab, you would find me at my desk planning my day, then getting stuck into lab work, which I absolutely love. Afternoons would often be spent finishing off experiments, in the flow lab or at my desk analysing data, planning, reading, preparing or debriefing with a chat. These days my work is less structured to incorporate family life with young children and I often work evenings and weekends tucked away in the study at home. Like many parents, I have learnt to be flexible and adjust my pace whilst continuing to do something that I am passionate about and which gives me enormous fulfilment.

What’s something you and/or your team have achieved that you are proud of?

Having been there from the very beginning of our project investigating influenza-specific T cell immunity in the Indigenous Australian population, it has been amazing to see the project grow and evolve. I’m so excited that we are actually doing the things we set out to do! Watching the project get bigger and joining with collaborators to tackle new questions and explore new ideas has been so rewarding. We are now at the stage of completing some aspects of the project and being able to share our novel findings is a wonderful accomplishment for the whole team. I am enormously appreciative of the fabulous team in the Kedzierska Lab who are supportive, encouraging, outstanding researchers and lovely people. It’s a privilege to be part of this group.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misunderstandings in your line of work?

Our work on understanding immunity to influenza often relies on blood samples donated by study participants. These samples are incredibly valuable for our research and we need to plan carefully how they will be used to ensure we glean as much information as possible. This often involves teaming up with other researchers to combine experiments and share the sample as much as possible. This means being organised, prioritising certain research questions, co-ordinating people and equipment and being prepared for whatever the day throws at you! Research certainly has its highs and lows and regrouping when an experiment fails or troubleshooting your way through a problem can be challenging. Being kind to yourself and learning to step back and see the bigger picture can give context and help with these setbacks.

Having been in this field for some time now, I have seen how the scope and complexity of the research has changed. I used to think that I needed to stay on top of all the latest developments, know everything and do everything. Experience has now taught me that I can’t do this all the time and the greatest support to my career over the past five years has been a fantastic team of colleagues.

If you could cure anything today, what would it be?

A cure for influenza would save hundreds of thousands of lives each year and prevent potentially devastating pandemics. It is incredibly motivating and rewarding to work in a job where I can contribute to this.

Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing a career in science?

If you are passionate about what you do it doesn’t feel like a job. I feel lucky to have enjoyed my work and whilst not every day is easy, I haven’t lost the sense of excitement over an interesting result, learning a new technique or seeing my work come together in a manuscript. Working in science research does require dedication and commitment, so making sure that this career aligns with you is important. If it does, it can be enormously fulfilling, both personally and professionally.