Perfume, jazz and immunogenetics

Dr Velislava Petrova is a Postdoctoral Fellow working in immunogenetics in Dr Carl Anderson’s group at the Sanger Institute. She is also a Borysiewicz Fellow at the University of Cambridge. As part of this fellowship, she is currently working at the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Office of Innovation in Geneva, on a project to strengthen the links between academia and UNAIDS.

Meet the Scientists: Velislava Petrova

1. Tell us about your work in up to 10 words

I study the immune responses to infection and inflammation.

2. What is the most overused word/phrase in your lab?

We study the role of genetics in different autoimmune conditions. We often have to integrate multiple data sets and control for different variables – so I would say – QC (quality control). We are meticulous about the robustness of any analysis we do. Sometimes a little too meticulous perhaps.

3. Describe the Sanger Institute in up to 10 words

For others – Leading genomics centre. For me – my scientific home.

4. Why did you decide to become a scientist?

It wasn’t any one thing that determined my decision. I was always very curious to know how things work, why certain processes operate in the way they do and what is the basis of different natural phenomena. I went to an international science camp in the Max Plank Institute in Göttingen during my high school and this was my first exposure to research. I liked the multi-cultural environment and loved my anatomy course. I was fascinated by olfaction and the story that one of our professors shared about the ability of sperm cells to ‘smell’ the oocyte and thus direct their motion to the right ovary. I am still not sure if there is any strong evidence to support this phenomenon, but it sounded like a great story, and was enough to trigger my interest. I ended up doing research in a completely different field but my love of olfaction remained as the basis of my hobby – I love perfumery.

5. Who is your science hero?

I don’t think I have one. For me, knowledge is incremental. No one is able to make a ground-breaking discovery without the effort and contribution of others before them. So every scientist is a hero in a sense, as they’ve contributed to enable someone, somewhere to make a discovery that constitutes a major leap in knowledge.

I was lucky to have two advisors who were true inspiration for me. Colin Russell struck me with his brilliance from the first talk of his I heard at a conference. Ever since becoming my mentor, he’s been someone who challenges me to think in scientific directions I would not normally consider and encourages me to pursue the career opportunities that make me feel content and happy.

Carl Anderson on the other hand has always inspired me with his endless enthusiasm and energy to ask challenging research questions and to answer them with the most rigorous analysis and experimental design. What I learnt from him is to be patient, focused on the goal and more optimistic (which wasn’t always easy). 

6. What is the most exciting development in your field from the last 10 years?

Single-cell analysis at scale, and the ability to profile multiple cell phenotypes at once. Now the challenge is to find out how to make sense of all of the data.

7. What is the most surprising discovery you have made?

That measles not only causes a rash but it also deletes your immunity to other pathogens and makes your immune system more child-like. Our discovery was so surprising I had to check my results ten times to be sure. As a scientist, it was exciting to discover something with so many potential public health implications. But as a citizen it made me very concerned about the status of our herd immunity. There is the potential to see re-emergence of diseases we had eliminated, just because we have increasing number of measles cases in people who don’t vaccinate.

8. If you could time travel to any period in history, which would you pick?

If it was just for a day, I would say the 1920s-1930s because of the jazz, which I love. But there was still too much social inequality then, so I don’t think I would have enjoyed living in such times. So, I would say – the future. I want to see if the areas we see now as the global challenges and threats for the future will indeed be our major concerns, or whether something completely unpredictable will happen.

9. If you were omnipotent for the day, what is the first thing you would do?

It’s just a day so any major change I would make could have serious implications that I would not be able to control after that. No matter how noble my intentions are, there is always a chance that someone might be impacted badly by my choice. So, I would say – make everyone feel happy for a day, no matter what their source of happiness is (as long as it does not hurt others of course).

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