UCL News


Spotlight on... Professor Dame Anne Johnson

18 March 2021

This week we meet Professor Dame Anne Johnson, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the UCL Institute for Global Health, Co-Director of UCL Health of the Public and President of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS).

Professor Dame Anne Johnson

What is your role and what does it involve?

I have several different roles. I am a Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the UCL Institute for Global Health, and I’m involved in a number of major research projects including i-Sense, developing novel diagnostics and pathways for infectious disease detection, and Virus Watch, studying transmission of COVID-19 in a large community cohort study. I’m Co-Director of UCL Health of the Public – a virtual school that seeks to bring together research relevant to public health, across UCL’s Faculties. I’m also President of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) which means I get involved in many aspects of science policy.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I joined UCL in 1985 and have worked as a researcher in the epidemiology and prevention of HIV, sexually transmitted infections and other infectious diseases ever since. At the heart of my research has been how behavioural and biological factors interact to determine how much infectious diseases spread.

One of my roles, working as a GP in the 1980s, gave me an excellent grounding in the social determinants of health and encouraged me to pursue a career in public health research. Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in the way that socio-economic and environmental issues affect health. I’ve worked in behavioural epidemiology, specifically on sexual lifestyles, HIV and STIs, and so that has involved working with social scientists, epidemiologists, statisticians, economists and policy makers. But I’ve also been really interested in integrating that with the biology and surveillance of infectious diseases, and I have worked with virologists, microbiologists, engineers, and computer scientists throughout my career.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I think it would have to be the work I did in the 1980s and 90s, at the height of the emerging HIV epidemic. At that stage we had no idea exactly how HIV would spread, how far it would spread, or whether it would spread heterosexually. We didn’t have a vaccine, we didn’t have treatment, and there was a huge amount of research to be undertaken. That was when I got involved in sexual behaviour research and HIV prevention work. To have seen that epidemic evolve from a disease that killed so many young men in the 1980s here in London; to the transformation in treatment where people are now living a reasonably normal lifespan on antiretroviral drugs; and more sophisticated approaches to prevention, has been a really extraordinary journey.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

Last September, Professor Graham Hart (Dean, UCL Population Health Sciences) and I co-launched UCL Health of the Public – a virtual school that seeks to synergise public health research across disciplines at UCL.  

UCL Health of the Public epitomises everything that is so rich at UCL, bringing together a community of expertise across many fields, including engineering, climate science, anthropology, law, and economics, in order to take a much broader view – for example, of the impact of COVID-19, and how we should approach our future health. The project will develop new research communities and collaborations, and create a new workforce of researchers and students with skills that transcend disciplines, to ensure a healthy future for all.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Album: Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin';
Film: Babette's Feast;
Novel: Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

My nephew’s favourite joke to me, aged three. How does a fish pick its nose? With a fish finger

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

  • Maggie Smith
  • Marcus Rashford
  • John Snow (the epidemiologist rather than the Game of Thrones character)

What advice would you give your younger self?

Lighten up! 

What would it surprise people to know about you?

Singing is a big passion of mine, and being part of a choir is a great way to relax. Memorable gigs have been backing Procol Harum, and singing in amazing venues like the Royal Albert Hall. The pandemic has put paid to that for now…

What is your favourite place?

Digging in my garden in the sunshine.