Meet The Expert: Jennifer Rohn
9 February 2020
Dr Jennifer Rohn is a Principal Research Fellow and research group leader in the Division of Medicine and the Head of the Centre of Urological Biology at UCL. We caught up recently with Jenny and asked her our ‘Top Ten’ questions.
Dr Jennifer Rohn is a Principal Research Fellow and research group leader in the Division of Medicine and the Head of the Centre of Urological Biology at UCL. With a background in cell biology, virology and microbiology, she runs a research laboratory trying to understand how microbes interact with bladder cells, and why treatment frequently fails. In doing so, her team seeks to develop new cures and diagnostic tests for treatment-resistant and chronic UTI. She is also involved in undergraduate education and is much sought after as a public speaker for both student and adult audiences.
Jenny is a practicing scientist as well as a novelist, journalist, public speaker, science communicator and pundit. Jenny has three published novels under her belt and has also coined the term 'lab lit' to describe realistic novels featuring scientists as central characters. She founded the popular website LabLit.com to help promote the use of science and scientist characters in mainstream fiction, and to illuminate the world of scientists and laboratory culture. Jenny also blogs about the scientific life at Mind The Gap and at White Coats at Dawn on the Cosmic Shambles Network.
Jenny’s perspective has recently been in high demand from the media as concerns about the Coronavirus build. We caught up recently with Jenny and asked her our ‘Top Ten’ questions to understand her pioneering work and motivations – and here are her thought-provoking answers…
Question 1: Can you explain your passion for microbes and why you think research in this area is so important?
Jenny: Microbes were established on the planet billions of years before humans arrived on the scene and always seem to be one step ahead. Over the past decades, scourges that were once treatable are slipping out of our grasp due to the global phenomenon of antimicrobial resistance. Only by understanding how pathogens interact with their human hosts will we be able to develop better therapies and regain the upper hand against our ancient enemies. Yet research into new antibiotics in particular has stagnated in recent years – we urgently need to reverse this trend.
Question 2: Coronavirus is being much talked about. Are you able to give your perspective on this new virus?
Jenny: As our population increases and our appetite for global travel and super-cities intensifies, encounters with emerging new pathogens will surely increase. Although coronaviruses have caused the common cold for ages, this is the third animal-to-human epidemic variant to spin out in less than 20 years (after SARS and MERS), and it seems to be the most infectious one yet (though thankfully, less lethal). The global community needs to learn a number of lessons from these outbreaks to make them less likely and more containable in future – but pandemics are probably inevitable.
Question 3: Urinary tract infections (UTI) are a focus area for you. Can you explain why you think this research is so important and what your hopes are for future treatments?
Jenny: Everyone is probably familiar with ‘ordinary’ UTI, which is common in young women and is thought to be easily treated with a short course of antibiotics. Unfortunately, more sinister forms of UTI, which come back again and again or which never go away, are all too common, especially in our ageing population. But our healthcare framework treats UTI as a “one-size-fits-all” disease both in terms of diagnosis and treatment, which leaves many poor patients suffering without relief. I am passionate about improving the lot of patients everywhere; we are about to go into clinical trials with a new therapy that can destroy the deep bacterial reservoirs which resist normal treatment. Fingers crossed!
Question 4: You are multi-talented, with three novels to your name. Can you explain how storytelling and your medical research intertwine?
Jenny: Authors are encouraged to “write what they know”. I have always been an avid writer and a chronicler, and it is probably inevitable that I ended up writing novels about the world I know best. Scientists are woefully under-represented in fiction, so I campaign to increase the awareness of “lab lit” as a fantastic genre for any author who wants to write about fascinating topics and characters. Science has it all: intrigue, curiosity, colour, competition, jealousy, rivalry, the joy of discovery and the agony of rejection. Bringing it to life on the page will help foster an understanding of what it is that scientists do and why it’s important.
Question 5: UTIs are one of the most common infectious diseases in the world, with 150-200 million cases per year, and yet they are relatively understudied. Why do you think this is?
Jenny: I think there are three reasons and the combination is almost insurmountable. Historically, anything mainly affecting women has been downplayed or ignored by the medical profession. UTI is also a source of embarrassment: it happens “down there” and often involves unpleasant symptoms such as urinary incontinence, which makes it a taboo topic. Finally, it’s usually not lethal, so it’s not seen as imperative or “sexy” a research topic as, say, heart disease or cancer. “We already have antibiotics” is a comment I frequently see on my rejected grants. But with its hefty economic burden and escalating antimicrobial resistance profile, UTI truly is a globally urgent problem we need to solve.
Question 6: You are also a prolific blogger. In what way do you find blogging a useful and enjoyable way to convey your points of view and open up debates?
Jenny: Blogging was a natural extension of the personal journal I have kept since I was about eight years old. I like to write about my life in science, not the facts and figures. It relates again to my desire to shed light on the hidden world of science as a profession, a profession that is widely misunderstood, and sometimes feared. Fear doesn’t help scientists get our important messages across, whether that be that vaccines are safe or that climate change is real. People need to trust the messenger too, and with blogging you have the chance to connect with people on a more personal level and show them how you tick – that you’re human, not some sort of stereotypical mad or evil scientist.
Question 7: How does your research influence the content and direction of your teaching and visa-versa?
Jenny: I am a wholesale believer in UCL’s Connected Curriculum. Research and teaching have so much to offer one another. I have a steady stream of undergraduates doing real-world research in my lab, and when I give lectures and tutorials I try to bring the lessons to life with actual examples from my lab experiences. But it’s definitely a two-way interaction. During brainstorms in the classroom, I’ve been struck with how many brilliant and crazy ideas students have, and sometimes they inspire interesting experimental approaches. Teaching also makes my science communication better – you learn the best ways to explain complex ideas. So it all synergizes.
Question 8: You work in multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary collaborations. In what ways is this framework of partnerships central to your research?
Jenny: My team think big – we don’t want to get bogged down studying just one gene or process like some basic scientists do. We want to develop bold and disruptive cures and diagnostics, and for this you need to involve lots of different expertise. We only work in human systems, with patients and in vitro models not animals, and we rely on our clinical collaborators to share their insights, on the wonderful patients who take part in the studies, and on our engineering, materials scientists and industrial collaborators to breathe commercial life into our ideas. It’s no good having an idea if you can’t ultimately make a product and get it out there to help the patients who inspired the original research in the first place.
Question 9: Can you explain the pleasure you get from supervising your students?
Jenny: I have been so privileged to work with a number of wonderfully bright and dedicated young researchers in my thirty-odd years as a scientist. Much like those crazy ideas in the classroom, younger scientists have an inherent flexibility and open-mindedness that I think most of us eventually lose as we age. Of course, there are exceptions, but I rely on my supervisees to keep me honest, excited and clued up on the latest techniques. Watching them develop and flourish into independence is a particular joy.
Question 10: What’s the drive that makes you leap out of bed every day..?!
Jenny: There are so many secrets about the interactions between microbes and their hosts, more questions than we can ever answer in a lifetime. I no longer do much if any hands-on lab work, but I live for the moments when a member of my team pops into my office to share something exciting – something that has never been seen or known before in the history of humankind. What could be a better job than that?
Connect with Jenny on Twitter @JennyRohn
Jenny Rohn is a media spokesperson on Covid-19. Read more here.
Discover more in the Meet The Expert series:
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